Last month, ProPublica published a bombshell investigation revealing that real estate billionaire and GOP megadonor Harlan Crow for two decades showered Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with very expensive gifts and private jet and yacht trips. Crucially, Justice Thomas failed to report such favors in his financial disclosures, potentially in violation of government ethics law. “The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas,” ProPublica found, “have no known precedent in the modern history of the US Supreme Court.”
Since then, the nonprofit investigative newsroom has also revealed that Crow paid tens of thousands of dollars in private tuition for Justice Thomas’s grandnephew, whom he had legal custody of, and that Crow had purchased Thomas’s mother’s house from the justice, where she continues to live rent free.
Despite that running list of scandals, former Vice President Mike Pence woke up on Saturday and decided to rush to his defense: “On January 20, 2017,” Pence wrote in a multi-part Twitter thread, “I was honored to be sworn in as Vice President by Justice Clarence Thomas. Ever since his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991 Justice Thomas has been maliciously attacked by the Left, including by then Sen. Joe Biden. The attacks on his character are continuing today, and it’s appalling to see.” He went to call him a “good man” and “a man of integrity.”
On January 20, 2017, I was honored to be sworn in as Vice President by Justice Clarence Thomas. pic.twitter.com/GREk3aUyb3
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) May 6, 2023
Pence is not alone, of course, in rushing to defend the justice. Nor is he alone in doing so in terms that suggest that there is nothing to worry about here, because Thomas is too upstanding of a guy to be swayed by improper influence. But that argument, as my colleague Tim Murphy explained earlier this week, ignores important reasons the story is troubling that go beyond Thomas’s hidden conflicts:
To watch Thomas and his friends defend his novel understanding of transparency—to listen to increasingly convoluted efforts to explain why a gift is not a gift (and by the way, thanks again)—is to see the conservative legal movement for the mercenary program that it is. Strip aside the airy invocations of the founders and they all just sound like an army of well-compensated, white-shoe lawyers arguing on behalf of a conglomerate that, actually, organ harvesting is a kind of agriculture.
This is the work: Find a loophole, or make one. Justify the conduct you want. You can find a founding father to say anything, but it’s regulatory capture all the way down.