The Supreme Court’s Corruption Scandal Isn’t About Ethical Niceties

INSIDE: George Santos ... Ken Paxton ... Kari Lake
Washington, DC - October 7 : Members of the Supreme Court sit for a group photo following the recent addition of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, at the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill on Friday, Oct 0... Washington, DC - October 7 : Members of the Supreme Court sit for a group photo following the recent addition of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, at the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill on Friday, Oct 07, 2022 in Washington, DC. Bottom row, from left, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A lot of things happened. Here are some of the things. This is TPM’s Morning Memo.

The Rot Is Deep

At the risk of participating in the overuse of Michael Kinsley’s rule of scandals –  “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.” – let’s take another look at the way the Supreme Court’s influence-peddling scandal is being portrayed.

The ostensible sin of Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito is failure to report gifts and freebies from wealthy GOP donors. That leads to an entirely unhelpful debate mired in semantics, legal technicalities, and line-drawing over disclosure requirements. It’s not that the reporting requirements are meaningless or useless or of no value (though probably less value than you think), it’s that they’re tripwires at best, an alert system.

Put it this way: If Thomas and Alito had disclosed these gifts, it would not have been okay! Or rather, in the norms of DC it would have been okay, but definitely should not have been okay.

A vast, lavishly funded, four-decade campaign to stack the federal judiciary and especially the Supreme Court with reliably indeed inalterably conservative judges is the real corruption here. Sure, more is needed on the ethics front and compliance with ethics rules should not be optional. But it’s like taking a knife to a gunfight.

The flip side of the coin is also true though: The reporting so far isn’t revealing sketchy quid pro quos. The justices aren’t for sale. They’re not crafting opinions based on these freebies. It’s a lot more foundational, insidious, and corrupt than that.

The issue is Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society and a couple of generations of leading lawyers on the right exerting enormous influence over the composition of the judiciary. You don’t fix that or reform the judiciary with nickel-and-dime financial disclosure rules alone.

Be clear about what the problem is.

Smell The Stench

In keeping with the above theme, I can’t recommend enough the latest piece from Dahlia Lithwick on how the justices’ own sense of honor and propriety is not only not the issue but entirely misses the point. The clever title – “Justice Samuel Alito IS the Salmon” – suggests we might be in for a lot of bad fishing puns, but no!, Lithwick pulls it out, with gems like these:

A #protip that will no doubt make those justices who have been lured away to elaborate bear hunts and deer hunts and rabbit hunts and salmon hunts by wealthy oligarchs feel a bit sad: If your close personal friends who only just met you after you came onto the courts are memorializing your time together for posterity, there’s a decent chance you are, in fact, the thing being hunted.

and …

Nobody in this world enjoys hearing that they are the salmon. But that is why we don’t allow the salmon be the sole arbiter of whether they are the salmon. 

Here’s more from Lithwick on why calling this an ethics scandal misses the point:

The Excuses Themselves Are Incriminating

No one has been as keenly aware of and loudly trying to draw attention to the festering cesspit of dark money and Supreme Court control than Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI):

Ya Don’t Say?

A Trump 2020 campaign official appeared before a DC federal grand jury under the supervision of Special Counsel Jack Smith that is investigating the fake electors scheme.

Santos Bond Guarantors Revealed

Two things we learned yesterday:

  • The names of the guarantors of the surety bond that is keeping Rep. George Santos (R-NY) out of jail pending trial were finally publicly released: his dad and an aunt.
  • Santos, who vowed he’d rather go to jail than let their names be made public, lied about that, too.

Who Will Nail Santos First?

With the the criminal case against Rep. George Santos (R-NY) proceeding apace, it’s not clear that the House Ethics Committee investigation will matter that much – except that it does seem to be moving more quickly than usual. So I can’t rule out that Ethics might beat DOJ to the punch in terms of actual punishment, like censure or expulsion. Stay tuned …

Ken Paxton Impeachment Saga Rolls On

Two new developments this week:

  • The impeachment trial in the state Senate of Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) is scheduled to begin Sept. 5.
  • State Sen. Angela Paxton, Ken Paxton’s wife, has been barred by the state Senate from voting in the impeachment trial.

Kari Lake Sued For Defamation By Election Official

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer has filed a defamation lawsuit against failed GOP Senate nominee Kari Lake for falsely alleging that he “sabotaged the election to prevent Republican candidates, including Lake, from winning.”

Hunter Biden Gets July Court Date

A hearing has been set for July 26 in federal court in Delaware for Hunter Biden to enter guilty pleas in his tax case. The judge must still approve the plea agreement.

I Hate It When This Happens

TPM’s Hunter Walker:

An Indiana chapter of the group Moms For Liberty, which was labeled an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this month, posted an apology on Thursday morning after publishing a newsletter fronted with a quote from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Biden Tries To Shore Up Contraception Access

Editor’s note: This item was by authored by TPM’s Kate Riga

With red states increasingly eyeing contraception crackdowns as part of their anti-abortion regimes, President Biden will sign an executive order today to protect access to contraception.

Jen Klein, assistant to the President and director of the Gender Policy Council, named a couple of examples on a Thursday call with reporters.

“One is Texas not paying for any form of emergency contraception for low-income women and girls in their state family planning program,” she said. “In Iowa, the Attorney General has suspended payments for emergency contraception for survivors of sexual assault.”

The order comes on the heels of a couple other administration executive orders on reproductive healthcare, similarly limited in scope. President Joe Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to codify abortion protections — a nonstarter with a Republican House — given what he says is his minimal arsenal.

Klein added that on this weekend marking the one-year-anniversary of Dobbs, Friday’s executive order is “the only policy action that you should expect.”

Wyoming Abortion Pill Ban Put On Hold

A state judge in Wyoming has blocked a ban on abortion pills from going into effect while a lawsuit challenging the new law proceeds.

Judge Strikes Down Florida Anti-Trans Law

A federal judge has struck down a Florida law banning Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care.

We Keep Tellin’ Ya

The House GOP can’t stop going after Social Security and Medicare.

Keep This On Your Radar

The commercial real estate bubble is a ticking time bomb.

U.S. Median Age Jumps Dramatically

Between 1980 and 2022, the median age in the United States jumped almost 9 years, from 30 to 38.9.

What Can You Spare?

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