By Tom Baxter
For the past two years, the effort to have a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas erected on the Capitol grounds has been one of those late-session dramas the General Assembly is known for.
Both last year and this year, the bill authorizing the monument passed the Senate and disappeared in the House, as many bills do. It was a great “argument” bill, a favorite of orators on both sides. The only consequence of the failure of such a bill is that you get to argue about it again the next year.
As a sweetener this year, supporters of the bill included the provision that the statue would be paid for with private money, which has a much different ring to it now than it had during the legislative session. Then you might have thought of a few score conservatives getting out their checkbooks to honor a hero. Now, inevitably, you wonder whether Harlan Crow was involved in that offer.
Georgia isn’t the only state, incidentally, where privately funded, politically conservative monuments have been proposed. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already signed a bill for the construction on the state capitol grounds of a “monument to the unborn,” marking the number of abortions performed in that state before the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We may be seeing the beginning of a wave of reaction to the removal of statues of figures out of fashion with the left.
As things stand today, it’s not certain that the statue bill will be back next year, but don’t bet against it. The wave of stories about Thomas’ cozy relationship with Crow may damage his legacy, but they probably won’t force him off the court. Nor will many opinions change on whether he should be remembered in marble.
A Supreme Court justice makes $285,400 a year, which is substantially more than the vice president or any member of Congress, and guaranteed for a lifetime. That suggests at least the intention to remove the justices from any temptation to be influenced by bribes or emoluments. But Crow’s generosity — the $500,000 he gave to launch Ginni Thomas’ online project, the cruise around Indonesia on Crow’s yacht, the bronze statue of Thomas’ eighth-grade teacher, the renovated house for his mother — make that guardrail look pretty flimsy.
An important part of this story is the hostility both Crow and Thomas have demonstrated toward the very principle of transparency. Crow has said that he wouldn’t disclose an expense unless required to do so. And The Los Angeles Times has reported that after the newspaper published a story about Crow’s gifts to Thomas in 2004, Thomas simply stopped disclosing any of the trips or gifts he received from the Texas billionaire.
There were reports Monday that Thomas is going to amend his financial reports to include the real estate transactions involving his mother, which is a step in the direction of sunshine. But the spotlight on his financial activities has grown more intense. A Washington Post story that revealed that he and his wife had been reporting income from a company that is no longer in business seemed a little picky: this discrepancy presumably would have cost the couple money. But after what increasingly seems like a willful effort to avoid disclosure, it’s the sort of microscopic scrutiny the Thomases can expect in the future.
From 2006 to 2016, Thomas did not ask a single question in oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The painfully public confirmation hearings in which Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment were aired appeared to have driven Thomas into an embittered silence, even though he gained a seat on the high court.
Then, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, he broke his silence, and since has become much more vocal during the court’s public proceedings. We’re not likely to see any similar transformation with regard to his finances, but circumstances may force more openness. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Rep. Hank Johnson are calling for an ethics investigation and sponsoring a bill that would enact stricter disclosure rules for the Supreme Court. An odd legacy, for such a reclusive justice.