Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is back in the spotlight for his relationships with conservative business leaders and for possible inaccuracies on his financial disclosure forms.
A New York Times story Sunday detailed the friendship between Thomas and Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow, and the assistance Crow has given to projects of interest to Thomas -- including a planned nonprofit museum in Pin Point Georgia, where Thomas was born. After Thomas took an interest in the project, a company controlled by Crow bought the Pin Point property where the museum would be built, according to The Times. The story also describes instances in which "Justice Thomas’s travels correspond to flights taken by Mr. Crow’s planes," but Thomas reported he had been reimbursed for his travel by other entities. Neither Thomas nor Crow responded to Times requests for comment.
In January, Thomas amended 13 years worth of his financial disclosure forms to reflect income earned by his wife Virginia after Common Cause complained that he had omitted her past salary from the Heritage Foundation and other sources. Thomas blamed a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions." Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia have also been criticized for their relationship with energy executives Charles and David Koch.
The story Sunday has renewed calls by liberal advocacy groups for legislation that would place Supreme Court justices under the same code of conduct imposed on lower federal court judges. Currently, justices comply voluntarily.
In a statement Sunday Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, said the story raised questions about the "accuracy and completeness" of Thomas's financial disclosure forms and about the "ethical environment within the United States Supreme Court." She added, "The nation can ill afford to have an ethical cloud hanging over the Court, caused not only by the behavior of individual Justices, but by the lack of stringent, clear rules governing their behavior." She called for passage of H.R. 862 , which would extend the code of conduct to justices and would require justices to explain their reasons for recusals. The bill was co-sponsored by then-Rep. Anthony Weiner, (D-N.Y.) who has announced his resignation last week after revelations about his online communications with women.
The friendship between Thomas and Crow has triggered controversy before. We wrote about the relationship in June, 2002 after Thomas reported he had received a gift from Crow valued at $19,000:
Friendship leaves its footprint in unusual places. Case in point: the friendship of Justice Clarence Thomas and Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow.
The financial disclosure forms filed by Thomas last month -- reporting income, assets, and significant gifts received in the previous year -- listed a gift of a "Frederick Douglass Bible," valued at $19,000, from Harlan and Kathy Crow, described as "personal friends."
Crow is chairman and chief executive of Crow Holdings, which directs the investments of the Trammell Crow family -- Trammell is his father -- and manages its portfolio of real estate and businesses valued at more than $300 million. Crow is a faithful donor to Republican candidates and causes, ranging from President George W. Bush to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
On his 1998 disclosure form, Thomas reported that Crow gave him a free plane ride to and from the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California club. In 2001, Crow made his friendship clear in another way. He was identified last September as the previously anonymous donor of $175,000 in seed money for the renovation of a library in Savannah, Ga., that Thomas visited frequently as a child. The historically black Carnegie Library had fallen into disrepair, and Thomas wanted to see it renovated. When Crow learned of the situation, he offered the six-figure sum.
The library donation caused a dust-up because Crow had requested that a new wing built as part of the renovation be named for Thomas. Local civil rights leaders protested, arguing that Thomas should not receive the honor because of his judicial record in civil rights cases.
The board ultimately accepted the donation over the vocal objections of civil rights leaders. Groundbreaking for the new wing will be in the fall. At the time of the Savannah controversy, in a brief telephone interview, Crow acknowledged his friendship with Thomas but said, "I really don't want to talk about it."
Apparently, the two met years ago when Thomas gave a speech in Dallas. Crow sits on the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that boasts scholars, including onetime Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Coincidentally, Thomas also reports in this year's financial disclosure form a gift from AEI, an Abraham Lincoln bust valued at $15,000.
Crow did not return phone calls seeking more information on the Douglass Bible. But the gift is in keeping with Thomas' longstanding affinity for Douglass, the 19th century black escaped slave, abolitionist and author. A portrait of Douglass hangs in the justice's office behind his desk chair.
Douglass scholars were not immediately familiar with the Douglass Bible given to Thomas. John McKivigan, editor of the Douglass papers and history professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, says Douglass was "a religious man, though not a church-going individual. He quoted the Bible frequently, so there was probably a well-thumbed Bible that belonged to him."
But McKivigan thinks the gift to Thomas is more likely to be a Bible that was presented to Douglass by one of the many institutions that were helped by Douglass' fund-raising efforts.
So would Douglass be happy that the conservative Thomas is such a fan? "Douglass was a loyal Republican," says McKivigan. "He felt that, for blacks, the Republican Party was the ship and everything else was the sea. There were no other alternatives for blacks in his view."
McKivigan was surprised at the stated value of the Douglass Bible. "If that's the value of the Bible, then there are a few things that I'm heading to eBay with," McKivigan joked.