The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Clarence Thomas’s explanations fail the laugh test

Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington in October 2020. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)
4 min

An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances of Thurgood Marshall's exit from the Supreme Court. He retired in 1991. This version has been updated.

During his much-too-long tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas has been totally, tragically wrong about almost everything. But for a long time, I tried to convince myself that he was at least sincere in his deplorable ideology.

Silly me.

I was never sympathetic. I believed Anita Hill, who testified at Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1991 that he had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at two government agencies. And for Thomas, a far-right Republican apparatchik, to take the seat on the nation’s highest court vacated by the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, an icon of the civil rights movement, was always an abomination.

But I did understand how a Black man born in Pin Point, Ga., in 1948 might have a great big chip on his shoulder. I understood how growing up under the jackboot of Jim Crow might lead him to the philosophy of Black self-sufficiency articulated by Malcolm X, which Thomas espoused in his youth. And I almost — but not quite — understood how a deep distrust of government, perhaps along with some personal issues involving self-image and self-worth, might have produced his tear-it-all-down judicial nihilism.

Ruth Marcus: Clarence Thomas enters the danger zone

It was hard for me to believe that Thomas could be as much of a puppet of the most reactionary forces in American society as he seemed. But now, there is overwhelming evidence that that’s exactly what he is.

Thanks to reporting this month by ProPublica, we now know that Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a hard-right Republican activist, have been treated to lavish vacations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by Harlan Crow, a politically active Texas billionaire. These jaunts included a vacation in Indonesia in 2019 that involved flights on Crow’s private jet and an island-hopping tour on a superyacht — a nine-day trip that alone would have cost the couple more than $500,000. If they had paid for it themselves. Which they did not.

There were also other trips on Crow’s jet and frequent stays at properties he owns in the Adirondacks and in East Texas, according to ProPublica. Accompanying the Thomases as guests, at times, were conservative business executives and thought leaders.

And for some reason, Thomas failed to report any of these gifts — any of them — on the disclosure forms he is required to submit annually.

The Post's View: Justice Thomas should make full disclosure, as the law requires

Nor did Thomas disclose the fact that Crow purchased the Georgia house the justice’s mother lives in, then made tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of improvements to the dwelling, ProPublica subsequently revealed.

We should have seen this coming. From 2003 to 2007, on his disclosure forms, Thomas checked the box labeled “none” for his wife’s income. During that period, Ginni Thomas earned more than $686,000 from the conservative Heritage Foundation. When called on the lie, Thomas said it was an error “due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”

Likewise, regarding the trips he took at Crow’s expense, Thomas issued a statement claiming that early in his time on the Supreme Court, he “was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.”

Stop laughing. All right, yes, it is hilarious. Thomas expects the nation to take seriously his views on the subtlest contours of the Constitution. He also expects us to believe he cannot understand a clear and simple instruction on a disclosure form; that he sees no distinction between “personal hospitality” and trips halfway around the world by private jet; and that he sees nothing wrong about having a member of the board of the conservative American Enterprise Institute purchase and fix up his mother’s house.

Cartoon by Ann Telnaes: Hiding behind SCOTUS’s skirts

A little context: In 1969, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned after it was learned that he had accepted, then returned, $20,000 from a Wall Street financier. At the time, Chief Justice Earl Warren felt it was important that Fortas step down to preserve the court’s reputation.

Thomas accepted gifts from Crow worth many times that amount, even counting for inflation, and failed to report them. And then there is all the money Ginni Thomas has received from right-wing organizations that lobby on issues before the court — plus her outrageous involvement in the “Stop the Steal” putsch that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Thomas doesn’t believe in affirmative action or protecting voting rights, though he benefited from both. He does believe in living the good life among millionaires and billionaires whose interests he just happens to protect in his opinions.

My mental image of Thomas used to be of him sitting on the Supreme Court bench during arguments, silent and scowling. Now, I see him on vacation, smoking a cigar with Crow and his buddies, laughing as though he doesn’t have a care in the world. The joke is on us.