Sugar Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas while he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 i... WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas while he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for 30 years. He was nominated by former President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and is the second African-American to serve on the high court, following Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Did you see the latest Clarence Thomas bombshell? To head off any misunderstanding, let me state that I know with a perfect certainty that Thomas will never be removed from the Court. And while it is theoretically possible he could resign, the odds of that happening are roughly equivalent of finding sentient life on Mars. But that doesn’t take any of the punch away from the news that Thomas had a child (a grandnephew for whom the Thomases became legal guardians) at private school and Harlan Crow picked up the tab for the tuition.

I want to take a moment to chart the trajectory of these revelations.

The first was the Crows taking the Thomases on these boffo luxury vacations on the Crows’ dime, ones that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Thomases to do on their own. Extremely unseemly. But at least there’s the “dear friend” fig leaf. And one can argue that the lion’s share of the expense was committed for the Crows’ trip already. Only a limited expense was incurred for the Thomases tagging along. Again, not great at all but at least there are some vaguely plausible counterarguments.

Then we learned that Crow had purchased Thomas’ mom’s home, funded extensive renovations and allowed her to continue living in it. So Harlan’s living rent free in our heads and Thomas’ mom is living rent free in Harlan’s house. Good work if you can get it.

This was a vastly more serious case. While we don’t know what Crow paid this was certainly not an arm’s-length transaction. And allowing Thomas’ mother to live in the renovated home apparently rent free (she’s still alive and living there) is an open and shut gift to the Thomas family. Here at least one could pretend to believe — absent any evidence — that Crow paid fair market value for the property and was looking to invest in aging homes in African American communities in rural Georgia. His claim that he is planning to build a Clarence Thomas museum at the property hardly changes anything.

Now we have Harlan straight up picking up the tab for Thomas’ kid’s tuition. Each new revelation ups the ante. He might as well be picking up the tab for the Thomas’ groceries. And who knows? Maybe he is. If you’ve ever sent your minor child to a private or parochial school or paid some or all of their college tuition, would you say having a rich friend pay on your behalf would be helpful? Thomas is a kept justice — or I guess “Sugar Justice” might be a better way to put it. He might as well have Thomas on a monthly stipend.

If anything the lead of the article slightly undersells the bad act. The boy, Mark Martin, is Thomas’s grandnephew and thus, by blood, a relative rather than a child. Defenders have seized on this distinction. There’s one set of disclosure requirements relating to a judge’s spouse and dependent children. And Martin was not the Thomases adopted child. But the Thomases were Martin’s legal guardian. As such, they were responsible for his upbringing and whatever costs went with it. There’s no substantive or legal distinction between this and the check you cut for your child’s tuition to the extent that it is a gift to the Thomases who otherwise would have had to come up with the money.

(Have I mentioned that TPM alum Justin Elliott is one of the three-member team that landed all of these bombshells? Well, he is.)

I will simply note the trajectory, the escalation: each story has been substantially worse than the last. To the extent that one can wrestle the subjectivity of news publishing to the crisp precision of mathematics, I’d say each is an order of magnitude worse than the one that preceded it.

As noted at the top, Thomas isn’t going anywhere. He’s certainly not going anywhere as long as Joe Biden is President and Democrats hold the Senate majority. But I think we’re at the point where no one in the privacy of their thoughts can doubt that if Thomas were a judge serving on really any other bench he’d be out the door already. Indeed, if he were a Democratic appointee he’d probably already have been forced to resign.

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