Latest Thomas revelation drives home the urgency of ethics reform on the court

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)

The reminders seem endless that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ judicial objectivity is thoroughly compromised by money and favors from the political right. ProPublica reported last Thursday morning that the same wealthy Republican donor who has treated Thomas and his right-wing-activist wife Ginni Thomas to luxury vacations also paid boarding-school tuition for a Thomas grandnephew. By Thursday evening, The Washington Post was reporting that a judicial activist directed almost $100,000 in fees to Ms. Thomas, urging in memos that the documentation for the fees make “no mention of Ginni, of course.” Of course.

Justice Thomas’ refusal to be bound by ethics standards has been singularly brazen, but examples related to the other justices abound. Since Chief Justice John Roberts appears determined to keep his head in the sand, Congress should press ahead with ethics standards on the court — which, contrary to Roberts’ apparent belief, is subject to checks and balances just as the other two branches of government are.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (right) and Virginia Thomas arrive for the State Dinner at The White House honoring Australian Prime Minister Morrison on Sept. 20, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images/TNS)

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While every other judge in America is bound by a mandatory code of ethics, Supreme Court justices have what amounts to a list of unenforceable suggestions when it comes to transparency in their financial connections. That’s a problem, given that these nine unelected judges today have, in many ways, more power to set national policy than Congress and the presidency combined.

Clearly Thomas should have publicly reported this largess from activists, some of whom had connections to cases before the court. But as it stands, only Thomas can decide what Thomas must report — and he has shrugged off the suggestion that the public had any right to know.

If that sounds like astounding arrogance, it’s nothing compared to what Roberts displayed last month when Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, invited him to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding ethics issues on the court. Roberts declined, saying in a letter that it’s a matter of respecting the “separation of powers” and “judicial independence.” As if to punctuate that brush-off, he attached the Supreme Court’s “Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices” — the one that Thomas and other justices have proven is toothless.

Roberts’ imperious suggestion that his court is accountable to no one is not only dangerous from a constitutional perspective but dangerous to the court itself. Some Democrats are suggesting Congress should cut the court’s budget — one of the few constitutionally specified powers Congress has over the justices — in order to force ethics reform. With the court facing historically low approval ratings, that irresponsible idea might not get much pushback from the public.

Separation of powers isn’t a one-way street. If Roberts doesn’t come down from his mountain and show America that he understands that “judicial independence” doesn’t mean utter unaccountability, he risks going down in history as the chief justice who presided over the final collapse of credibility for the Supreme Court.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).