Justice Thomas’ Dangerous Conceit

Here is today’s column in the Los Angeles Times (Sunday) on the recent remarks from Justice Clarence following criticism for his disclosure violations and alleged conflicts of interest.

Louis XIV of France was infamous for his view that there was no distinction between himself and the state, allegedly proclaiming “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the State”). That notorious merging of personality with an institution was again on display in a February speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before the conservative Federalist Society.

Thomas used the friendly audience to finally address a chorus of criticism over his alleged conflicts of interest and violation of federal disclosure rules concerning his wife’s income. Rather than answer these questions, however, Thomas denounced his critics as “undermining” the court and endangering the country by weakening core institutions.

In January, Common Cause released documents showing that Thomas had attended events funded by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. Thomas was even featured in Koch promotional material — along with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others — for events that sought financial and political support for conservative political causes.

Worse yet, Common Cause discovered that Thomas had failed to disclose a source of income for 13 years on required federal forms. Thomas stated that his wife, Virginia, had no income, when in truth she had hundreds of thousands of dollars of income from conservative organizations, including roughly $700,000 from the Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007. Thomas reported “none” in answering specific questions about “spousal non-investment income” on annual forms — answers expressly made “subject to civil and criminal sanctions.”

In the interests of full disclosure, I was consulted by Common Cause before the release of the Thomas documents. I found the violations regarding Virginia Thomas’ income particularly alarming.

Virginia Thomas was receiving money from groups that had expressed direct interest in the outcome of cases that came before her husband, including Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, in which the court in 2010 struck down limitations on corporate contributions to elections.

A justice is expressly required by federal law to recuse himself from any case “in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” This law specifically requires recusal when he knows that “his spouse … has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.”

The financial disclosure forms are meant to assist the public in determining conflicts of interest. Though Thomas clearly could argue that his wife’s ties to these organizations were not grounds for recusal, he denied the court and the public the ability to fully evaluate those conflicts at the time. Instead, Thomas misled the public for years on the considerable wealth he and his wife were accumulating from ideological groups.

After Common Cause detailed the violations, Thomas simply wrote a brief letter to the court saying that the information was “inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”

It is unclear how Thomas will rule in the next case in which an individual is accused of a failure to disclose on tax or other government forms. Thomas is viewed as one of the least sympathetic justices to such defenses. Indeed, last year, he joined a decision in Jerman vs. Carlisle that rejected a defense from debt collectors that their violations were due to misunderstandings of the requirements of federal law and just “bona fide errors.” In rejecting the claim that such errors were not intentional, the court reminded the defendants that “we have long recognized the common maxim, familiar to all minds, that ignorance of the law will not excuse any person, either civilly or criminally.”

None of these issues, however, was addressed by Thomas in his speech to the Federalist Society. Instead, Thomas suggested that his critics were endangering freedom by undermining his authority and, by extension, the authority of the court. He insisted that his wife was being attacked because she believes in the same things he does and because they were “focused on defending liberty.” He added:

“You all are going to be, unfortunately, the recipients of the fallout from that — that there’s going to be a day when you need these institutions to be credible and to be fully functioning to protect your liberties…. And that’s long after I’m gone, and that could be either a short or a long time, but you’re younger, and it’s still going to be a necessity to protect the liberties that you enjoy now in this country.”

That was Thomas’ Louis XIV moment. Thomas appears to have finally merged his own personality with the institution itself. Thus, any criticism — even criticism that he is harming the court — is an attack on the institution. It is more than an embarrassing conceit; it can be a dangerous delusion for any justice.

The Supreme Court is not composed of nine Atlas-like jurists holding up justice in the United States. Rather, the foundations are laid in the rule of law, which speaks to all Americans in the same voice. The court is “credible,” to use Thomas’ word, because it is not the extension of the jurists themselves but the law that they are required to follow.

“I am the Court” sounds little better than “I am the State.” We will continue to “enjoy” the liberties of this nation not by the grace or grandeur of Justice Thomas but by the simple triumph of principle over personalities.

Jonathan Turley is as professor of law at George Washington University, where he teaches a class on the Supreme Court.

March 6, 2011

50 thoughts on “Justice Thomas’ Dangerous Conceit”

  1. rafflaw & BIL,

    I can’t decide if the above is my favorite, or Rick James from “Charlie Murphy Stories” … either way, I laugh my arse off!

  2. SL,

    That’s probably my favorite Dave Chapelle sketch of all time.

  3. Anyone who criticizes Justice Thomas has clearly had hallucination pills put in their Nescafe by al Qaeda!

    I guess it’s a sign of how little pressure Thomas is feeling that the “wildly disingenuous third-party race card” hasn’t yet been played by a right winger. We’ll know that they are feeling the heat when some “white”, “southern strategy”-operating, right-wing partisan hack starts claiming that critics of Justice Thomas are racists.

  4. rafflaw,

    “I think you hit the nail on the head. He is just boiling over with anger.”

    I don’t know why, but everytime I think of what an angry individual “Justice” Thomas is, and his obvious self-loathing, this comes to mind:


  5. Thomas is a fascinating guy. Not in a good way.

    Unlike some of our other distinguished African-American justices, Thomas was, from the beginning, the classic conservative example of an “affirmative action hire”. Ridiculously unqualified, put on the court for no other reasons other than:

    1. He would do what he was told to do by those who put him there-
    2. He was African-American and no one would challenge his nomination.

    Unfortunately for him, number 2 ended up not being the case. Out of all the women Thomas sexually harassed in the years leading up to his nomination, it turned out that a couple of them weren’t willing to just let it slide, especially one Anita Hill.

    Thomas’ reaction to her testimony should have let everyone know how he was going to deal with criticism. He could have stonewalled, laughed it off, or humbly admitted to “mistakes were made” and moving on. He would have been confirmed anyway. However, he did none of those things, instead exploding in a paroxysm of rage similar to what we are seeing now, denouncing his confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching” (proving he certainly wasn’t above playing the race card when it was in his best interests) and handling it as one would expect someone who was guilty of the offense in question to handle it, if they didn’t have control over their temper or judgment.

    The years have taken their toll. Long ago exposed as a fraud, Thomas now just sits, asking nothing, signing Scalia’s opinions, collecting his paycheck, voting with the conservatives without explanation or justification for his reasoning, and touring the country in his trailer with his wife during his downtime. I’m sure he is probably a kick to hang out with in an RV park, and a fun guy to slam a couple of brewskis with (as repeated attempts to sanitize his image as a sullen, snarling, hateful, incurious and lackadaisical justice mention) but let’s face it, folks – that barely qualifies you to be a decent neighbor, much less a sitting justice on the highest court in the land.

    Thomas should be impeached and removed. But, in a nation where we can’t even DISCUSS doing so to people who deliberately lied this country into a decade-long war, that will never happen, and he will die as a member of the court that he despises so much.

  6. Stamford,
    I think you hit the nail on the head. He is just boiling over with anger.
    I think it is a matter of intent on those forms, but after several years of consistent lies, I would think the intent was pretty clear.

  7. rafflaw,

    I tried to read his book a few years ago – I got halfway through it and couldn’t take it anymore. The only thing I was able to gleen from it was that he is one seriously ANGRY mofo in need of some seriously intensive psychotherapy.

    Talk about a self-loathing individual …

  8. Stamford Liberal,
    You are correct. Justice Thomas not only needs to be removed from the bench, he needs to spend some time on the couch. He seems to have some very serious emotional issues that need to be addressed.

  9. Thomas used the friendly audience to finally address a chorus of criticism over his alleged conflicts of interest and violation of federal disclosure rules concerning his wife’s income. Rather than answer these questions, however, Thomas denounced his critics as “undermining” the court and endangering the country by weakening core institutions.”

    The above paragraph tells me all I need to know (and have always known) about “Justice” Thomas: He’s a lying sack of shit, a coward, a fraud, and wouldn’t know the rule of law if it up and kicked him squarely in his robe-covered behind.

    The only thing “Justice” Thomas has managed to do throughout this latest debacle is his pathetic need to portray himself as the victim, a trait inherent to the Republican nature.

  10. Professor Turley:

    How does the impeachment process work for Supreme Court judges? It seems to me that Judge Thomas presents the perfect case for his impeachment and it should be done right away to set a precedent.

    Thank you.

  11. Buddha….It could be inbreeding….His….Don’t you remember the Testimony of Aneeda Hill…. Then again…maybe they have laws against that where he is from….but if you do it with yourself is it against the law…

  12. If I were to have to appear before this court, they should just go ahead and charge me with contempt and get it out of the way on the front end. Scalia, Alito, and Thomas are three of the most contemptible examples of humanity I have ever seen.

  13. Raff,

    Unlike the royalty, to my knowledge, he cannot blame his stupidity on inbreeding though.

    It’s just garden variety dumb.

  14. This Court lost me on Bush v. Gore and the Citizens United just put the icing on the cake. Justice Thomas’ holier than thou attitude does give rise to the comparison’s to the arrogance of royalty.

  15. As long as Thomas and Scalia are members of the Supreme Court, there will be no reason to afford the Court any respect. They are very poor examples of human beings, let alone the Supreme Court.

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