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The US Supreme Court Corruption Bonanza

When ProPublica’s investigation into links between Republican donor Harlan Crow and the US Supreme Court surfaced, there was a sense that dark waters lurked beneath the revelations. While Justice Clarence Thomas featured prominently as the recipient of largesse and pomp from Crow – island hopping in Indonesia, private jet travel, among other treats – things were bound to get worse.

At the time of the unveiling of such ignominious conduct, Thomas did not heed the wise injunction of Lord Acton to avoid too much explaining lest the excuses become too many. His hand caught in the till, Thomas dismissed such generosity as mere hospitality, a point reiterated in a statement from Crow. Besides, he had been advised by his fellow brethren – troublingly so – that he could accept such gifts of hospitality without fear of conflict and compromise. The clincher here: that Crow did not have any business before the court.

The Thomas-Crow relationship has had a decent pickling, stretching back a good number of years. In 2011, Crow lavished $500,000 upon Thomas’ wife to form a Tea Party Group. Thomas also received a $19,000 Bible said to belong to Frederick Douglass. In rather smelly fashion – odorous, that is, in the links between think-tank land, wealth and policy – Thomas received a $15,000 gift from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), with Crow serving on the board at the time. More recently, it has also been revealed that Crow’s generosity extended to funding the private school education of Thomas’s grandnephew to the sum of $6,000 a month.

The pong becomes a full raging stench with the realisation that the AEI filed three briefs with the Supreme Court soon after giving Thomas the gift, with all rulings being decided in their favour. While influence should not be confused with association, the appearance of conflict would be fatal to even the most disciplined of judicial minds.

The link with Crow becomes even more taut with revelations from ThinkProgress in 2011 about the legal successes of the Crow-affiliated group, Center for the Community Interest, at least when facing the less than critical eye of Justice Thomas. Not once did Thomas waiver in his judgments favouring the CCI.

Not to be outdone, Neil Gorsuch, along with two individuals, sold land to the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, a firm often engaged in business before the Supreme Court. The timing of the purchase is also of interest, given that the property in question had been on the market for almost two years till Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

In a less tawdry way, Justice Samuel Alito has also been found wanting for shooting off his mouth before dinner guests regarding the outcome of the 2014 case Burwell v Hobby Lobby months before its official publication. Good judgment can be rare – even on Olympus.

Efforts to impose an ethical code upon the justices akin to the lower courts have floundered over the years, much of this due to the saboteurs of the Supreme Court. At best, reliance has been placed upon the less than satisfactory statute requirement that justices, including those on the Supreme Court bench, recuse themselves in any case “in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was even threatening in his 2011 report, implying that any Congressional effort to constrain the bench by the imposition of such a code would violate the Constitution. In a rather novel interpretation, the fact that the lower courts were bound by the Code of Conduct “reflects a fundamental difference between the Supreme Court and the other federal courts.”

Lower court judges, were they to refuse recusing themselves from individual cases, could have their decisions reviewed, all the way to the Supreme Court. But on the high summit of Olympus, the country’s top judicial officers were intended to be wise and immune, “a consequence of the Constitution’s command that there be only ‘one supreme Court’.” To also leave the assessment of recusal to fellow judges might “affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its Members may participate.” Such reasoning is so idiosyncratic as to be suspicious.

A gaggle of Democrats are wondering how to bring the Supreme Court to heel on the issue, being particularly agitated at the Chief Justice’s refusal to take up an invitation to testify about ethics reform for the court. “Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States,” he snootily declared in a letter to the chairman, “is exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.”

The idea of funding is being mooted as a potential point of pressure. According to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Congress can draw upon court decisions making the point “that, in interbranch disputes, it is completely appropriate and proper for the legislative branch to use the power of the purse to influence the other branches in doing what they ought to be doing.”

Such suggestions risk having an opposite effect, stirring the justices into a sense of martyrdom while sailing close to the winds of violating the separation of powers. But those occupying the bench, in their breathtakingly irresponsible links with private interest groups, have done their fair share in soiling the stables of US justice. For that, the withering gaze of fairness should be directed not merely upon the likes of Crow, but such bodies as the Federalist Society, the sort that ensures that the Supreme Court, once bought, stays bought.


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  1. Roswell

    It’s an ongoing work in progress all this corruption in the Supreme Court.

  2. Lyndal

    Bringing in a retiring age (70) would be a good first step for the US courts .

  3. RomeoCharlie

    The land of the free, the home of the brave, the haven of the corrupt and the last refuge of the stupid. One despairs for the disunited states where the major parties really are as bad as each other, where a large swathe of the population apparently supports the presidential ambitions of a person who by his behaviour and his lies, should be debarred from ever being considered, indeed should probably be in jail. Generations of misinformation and disinformation, running down of the education system, wages that are barely above starvation levels, and a vast band of obscenely wealthy who use their money to perpetuate inequity, have ensured the suckers definitely never get an even break. And Albo wants to shackle us to them.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Agree with Roswell, just another example of a long game (a la Nancy MacLean ‘Democracy in Chains’) with Koch’s Federalist Society influence all over SCOTUS appointments….

  5. Canguro

    Given the frequency of off-the-scale incidents that characterise the USA’s social, legal & political landscapes, this latest addition to the catalogue of juicy scandals has an air of ho hum about it, coming on the back of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, both of whom attracted a degree of controversy that in any other jurisdiction would have seem them disqualified from consideration. Will anything change within the rules governing conduct at the highest level of that country’s judicial system now that Clarence Thomas has been revealed to be utterly corrupt? It currently appears unlikely…

    As RomeoCharlie has succinctly noted, America is in such a god awful mess that one wonders whether there is indeed any reasonable let alone rational hope for its capacity to be lifted from the morass into which it sinks seemingly further on an almost daily basis – mass murders currently more than 200 and no doubt set to eclipse any previous year’s numbers by a long shot, political consequences of racism, ignorance, bias, bigotry and cruelties inflicted upon millions of citizens, the haves preening in their limos & private jets as they flit between mansions and yachts while the have nots struggle to put food in the mouths of their children, often forced to live in barely acceptable housing with undrinkable water delivered by price-gouging service providers along with similar indignities on offer from the other utility corporations, health care unaffordable, education not even fit for an impoverished third world nation, and let’s not overlook the general state of the crumbling infrastructure that now forms the mainframe of the built environment, set alongside the despoiled and polluted natural and farmed landscapes.

    Ah, Capitalism! So much promise, so little return to so few people. It’s no surprise Marx was so reviled… given the essentially humane socioeconomic framework he laid out for societies. Hypocrites, crooks, carpetbaggers, shills, con-men, acolytes for criminality and corruption… all of these types that so populate the American landscape, the haters, the killers, the dead-eyed corporate moguls who rake in their multi-million dollar remunerations as heads of corporations whose businesses deal in weaponry, poisons, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals that all, aggregately, contribute to the overall suffering of mankind, all of them dead at heart yet sleeping comfortably in their beds lulled by their sense of success and having achieved the American dream.

    Australia may yet dodge a bullet if the orange-hued sociopathic monster called Trump gets reelected in 2024, with the possibility that he could can the AUKUS agreement. Another disaster for that country, but a minor win for this one.

  6. Caz

    It’s enough to make this athiest believe in the end of days.

  7. margcal

    As Romeo Charlie says…..

    And Albo wants to shackle us to them.

  8. Terence Mills

    Clarence Thomas is hopelessly compromised. It just remains to be seen whether democracy, the rule of law and judicial convention will see him off.

    Ironically if he does go, Biden will surely be blocked from putting up a replacement during the final year of his first term : something the Republicans enforced on Obama but not on Trump, oddly !

  9. Clakka

    Never mind the abject stupidity in their China-Taiwan scheme for perpetuation of their dwindling hegemony. There’s a very strong chance that whatever the case, they will break-out into civil war, after all they’ve got those runs on the board, and they’re armed to the teeth for it.

    As for Albanese shackling us to them (and Blighty), it seems to me to be an interim panto with automaton hardware, and a for-the-sake-of-something compilation of mixed signals, whilst we wait for the abject mess of the west to sort itself out.

    At home here in Oz, our supposed ‘influence’ comprises a plethora of guess-work, misdirection and weasel words, as we mask via the QUAD / ASEAN whilst fashioning a two-way kabuki with China.

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