Antonin Scalia Hunted So Clarence Thomas Could Cruise
A Brief History of Apparent Corruption on the Court
Around 9:00 p.m. on Friday February 12, 2016, according to the account of John Poindexter, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia excused himself from a dinner party, explaining it had been a long day and a long week. Scalia retired to his guest room at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, got into bed, and without wrinkling the sheets, he died.
The Republican-appointed Justice’s demise at the 30,000 acre Texas ranch, coming as it did in the last year of a Democratic president’s term, upset the delicate 5-4 conservative tilt that had prevailed on the Supreme Court for decades and it set in motion a momentous series of events.1 With so much at stake so suddenly, the nation’s attention was quickly drawn back to Washington, and only a brief flurry of press coverage dwelt upon the circumstances of Scalia’s passing.
But that context has always been interesting, and it has gained a new relevance in recent weeks with reports of the undisclosed pampering current Justice Clarence Thomas received from the billionaire Harlan Crow. The gatherings where Thomas and Scalia were caught, one by dogged reporting and the other by the cold hand of inescapable death, both show the depth of corruption that plagues the Court.
According to ProPublica’s detailed reporting, Justice Thomas was treated to trips aboard Crow’s private jets and yachts, at a luxury Adirondack resort owned by Crow, and at the famous Bohemian Grove retreat of the San Francisco-based Bohemian Club, where Crow is a member. Thomas also did business with Crow, selling him the house his mother lives in along with two vacant Savannah lots. None of it was disclosed on Thomas’s minimalist annual Ethics in Government Act filings. Crow is a colorful figure who happens to combine an enthusiasm for funding conservative non-profits and publications with a zeal for collecting artwork and objects connected to the leadership of Nazi Germany.
As bad as that all sounds on its own, the photorealistic oil painting commemorating Justice Thomas’s 2018 Adirondack retreat—which ProPublica also brought to light—deepened the impression of corruption. Seated with the Justice and Crow are three other men: Peter Rutledge, the Dean of the University of Georgia’s Law School and a former clerk in Thomas’s chambers, Leonard Leo, the head of the infamous Federalist Society, and Mark Paoletta, a senior White House aide in the Trump Administration. The tableau revealed the trip was really categorically different from straightforward “personal hospitality”—however lavish that might be. This was not two friends having their families meet up at a lake house for a joint vacation; Leonard Leo does not happen by such occasions. It was really a behind-closed-doors gathering between a serving Justice and several people with a professional, vested interest in influencing the federal courts, sponsored by a well-heeled benefactor who picks up the tab.
As the proprietor of the vacation property, Crow’s connection to the event—while concealed—was always potentially discoverable. The presence of the other figures in the conservative legal movement is far more ephemeral, preserved only in a few indiscreet private photographs and daubs of oil made from them.
After ProPublica issued its report, Justice Thomas released a statement saying that he’d consulted with colleagues about his trips with Crow and been assured that he didn’t have to report them—a direct indication that some other Justices have indulged in these corrupt arrangements. I feel pretty confident that one of those colleagues who offered Justice Thomas the advice to leave it off his reports was Justice Scalia.
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