The archconservative justices of the Supreme Court have been enjoying a steady stream of gifts and luxury travel from right-wing billionaire friends. What checks and balances are there for a corrupt judiciary?

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Let’s stipulate one thing to start: I don’t doubt that some people call themselves conservative because they believe in small government, low taxes and individual freedom.

However, even granting this, it’s hard to argue that this is the animating idea of the American conservative movement as it exists today. Based on the policies they support, it’s plain to see that its organizing principle is very different. Namely, conservatism appears most concerned with protecting the privileged class—wealthy, white, male Christians for the most part—and ensuring they can do whatever they want. Meanwhile, they want to subject everyone else to increasingly harsh, oppressive and arbitrary laws.

Donald Trump’s shameless attempts to exploit the presidency for his own profit—about which Republicans raised not a peep of protest—are the most glaring example. However, those efforts were unusual only in that they were so brazen. He didn’t pioneer the tactic. He only engaged in it after lesser lights of conservatism had been getting away with it for years.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Clarence Thomas.

Me and my billionaire friends

Thomas has been on the Supreme Court since 1991. He’s one of its most conservative justices, voting against abortion, against gay rights, against gun control, against church-state separation.

Thanks to reporting by ProPublica, we also know that he’s been living large for years on a steady stream of gifts from conservative billionaires. The plutocrats who’ve lavished their wealth on him include Harlan Crow, a Texas real estate mogul; Paul Novelly, an oil baron; David Sokol, a private equity manager; and Wayne Huizenga, a CEO and investor.

In fact, “gifts” is a massive understatement. That word implies a small wrapped package, like something that would fit under a Christmas tree. The gifts that Clarence Thomas has been receiving are of an entirely different order. They’re entrance tickets into a rarefied millionaire lifestyle that the average American can only dream of.

They include flights on private jets and sailing trips on superyachts; VIP passes and skybox seats to sporting events; stays at ultra-luxury hotels, parties at waterfront mansions, and trips to exclusive resorts for the ultrarich. Crow bought several real-estate properties from Thomas and paid the tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew, whom he was raising as a son, to attend private school. He’s even bankrolled Thomas’ insurrectionist wife, Ginni, and her far-right lobbying group Liberty Central (whose mere existence poses its own massive conflicts of interest).

Like clockwork, Thomas’ leisure activities have been underwritten by benefactors who share the ideology that drives his jurisprudence. Their gifts include:

At least 38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.

Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel.” Brett Murphy and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica, 10 August 2023.

Thomas has mentioned none of this in his yearly financial disclosures. But don’t worry, his billionaire friends swear that they’ve never discussed business on any of their little trips:

In a statement to ProPublica, Sokol said he’s been close friends with the Thomases for 21 years and acknowledged traveling with and occasionally hosting them. He defended the justice as upright and ethical. “We have never once discussed any pending court matter,” Sokol said. “Our conversations have always revolved around helping young people, sports, and family matters.”


Last October, in New Orleans, Sokol made a direct reference to a pending Supreme Court case while addressing a group of former Horatio Alger scholarship recipients. (Thomas was not in attendance.)

The speech veered into territory that made many of those in attendance uncomfortable and left others appalled, emails and others messages show. Sokol, who has written extensively about American exceptionalism and the virtues of free enterprise, minimized slavery and systemic racism, some felt. He then criticized President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, arguing Biden had overstepped the government’s authority, according to a recording of the speech obtained by ProPublica.

“It’s going to get overturned by the Supreme Court,” Sokol predicted, echoing a common legal commentary.

He was right. This summer, the court struck down Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Thomas voted in the majority.

This poses the obvious question: Was Sokol only guessing at what the court was going to rule? Or did he have insider knowledge from chatting with his buddy?

It’s not just Thomas going for a dip in the waters of corruption, either. Samuel Alito, another of the court’s archconservatives, went on an extravagant Alaska fishing trip with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. Singer flew him there on a private jet costing $100,000 each way and paid for his stay at a $1,000-a-night luxury lodge.

It was a profitable investment:

In 2014, the court agreed to resolve a key issue in a decade-long battle between Singer’s hedge fund and the nation of Argentina. Alito did not recuse himself from the case and voted with the 7-1 majority in Singer’s favor. The hedge fund was ultimately paid $2.4 billion.

Justice Samuel Alito Took Luxury Fishing Vacation With GOP Billionaire Who Later Had Cases Before the Court.” Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski. ProPublica, 20 June 2023.

Like Thomas, Alito didn’t disclose this trip until it was uncovered by reporters. He claimed that “personal hospitality” is exempt from disclosure requirements. This is a willfully dishonest misreading of the law.

An awareness of impropriety

The legal system has a de minimis rule, which states that some acts are too insignificant for the law to concern itself with. If I invite my friend over for dinner at my house and spend $30 on some hamburgers to grill and a six-pack of beer, that would arguably fall under the de minimis exemption.

However, if I instead invite my friend to a catered party at my multimillion-dollar vacation estate, pick him up on a private plane, and hire a celebrity chef to cook for us both, that’s not de minimis. Any reasonable person can see that there’s a vast and significant difference.

The fact that the justices didn’t report these trips suggests an awareness of impropriety. They knew it would give critics grounds to question their impartiality.

The fact that the justices didn’t report these trips suggests an awareness of impropriety.

There doesn’t even have to be an explicit quid pro quo. Any reasonable person can understand that if a Supreme Court justice is personal friends with a billionaire who showers him with gifts, favors and luxury vacations—how likely is it that said justice will vote against his friend’s desires? There can be an implicit, yet still completely obvious, understanding that if they stopped ruling the way their benefactors wanted, the stream of gifts would dry up.

While I don’t think judges should have to take a vow of poverty or live in seclusion like monks, it’s common sense that they should step back from any case which they have a personal connection to. That rule applies if a case before the court involves one of your friends. It also applies if the case involves the conservative think tank your friend has donated tens of millions of dollars to, or the Fortune 500 company whose board of directors your friend sits on, or the dark-money lobbying group your friend underwrites.

In short, if you befriend ultrarich people who have their fingers in many different pies, you should have to accept there’s a much wider spectrum of cases you have to disqualify yourself from. But the conservatives want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to enjoy the lavish “hospitality” of their wealthy friends, but they also want to keep ruling on cases that concern them. It’s bribery and corruption in the purest sense of the word.

Checks and balances

Much like Donald Trump, these conservative justices are acting as if the law is beneath them. They’re treating their office not as a position of public trust, but as a sinecure they’re entitled to exploit for their own benefit and to do favors for their friends. This would be bad enough in any political office, but it’s especially shocking and revolting with judges appointed to life terms who never have to face the corrective will of the voters.

The simplest Constitutional cure for this rampant corruption is impeachment. Unfortunately, the prospects of that are dim. It takes a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove a judge from office. In our polarized era, it’s clear that Republican senators value power above all.

Unlike in the days of Nixon, there will never be enough of them who’ll vote to remove a justice of their own party. As long as the Supreme Court’s conservatives keep voting the way they want, they’ll turn a blind eye to corruption or malfeasance, just as they’ve done with Donald Trump.

However, there are other reforms that can be made with a simple majority. For one, Congress could add new justices to the court to counteract the influence of the bad ones.

Or it could impose a mandatory retirement age. That’s a good idea in any case, as lifetime appointments to any office make a mockery of democracy. The judiciary needs regular turnover to keep up with the changing norms of society’s moral consensus. And, of course, it offers a useful test: will those GOP megadonors keep pouring their largesse on their “friends” when they no longer have anything to gain by it?

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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