In 2019, an aide to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pocketed cash from multiple lawyers who have argued cases before the high court, including ones who recently helped gut affirmative action and the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas pollution.
The formerly public Venmo account of Rajan Vasisht, who served as Thomas’ aide from July 2019 to July 2021, shows that “he received seven payments in November and December 2019 from lawyers who previously served as Thomas legal clerks,” The Guardian reported Wednesday. “The amount of the payments is not disclosed, but the purpose of each payment is listed as either ‘Christmas party,’ ‘Thomas Christmas Party,’ ‘CT Christmas Party,’ or ‘CT Xmas party,’ in an apparent reference to the justice’s initials.”
While it’s not clear what precisely the funds were for, the Venmo transactions draw further attention to the close ties between Thomas and certain individuals who have had cases in front of the justice. For critics, they provide fresh evidence of the ethical rot at the nation’s top judicial body.
“Corruption,” tweeted the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Lawyers with business in front of the Supreme Court helping finance Clarence Thomas’ Christmas parties? This court loses more and more of its legitimacy every day.”
Here we go again. Lawyers with business in front of the Supreme Court—including the plaintiff’s lawyer in the recent affirmative action case—made Venmo payments to an aide to Clarence Thomas in 2019.
— Sawyer Hackett (@SawyerHackett) July 12, 2023
Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during former President George W. Bush’s administration, told The Guardian that “it is ‘not appropriate’ for former Thomas law clerks who were established in private practice to—in effect—send money to the Supreme Court via Venmo.”
“There is no excuse for it. Thomas could invite them to his Christmas party and he could attend Christmas parties, as long as they are not discussing any cases. His Christmas party should not be paid for by lawyers,” Painter said. “A federal government employee collecting money from lawyers for any reason… I don’t see how that works.”
Demonstrating their respect for ethics standards by not putting “bribe” in the Venmo. https://t.co/R6NeB12EDN
— Moira Donegan (@MoiraDonegan) July 12, 2023
According to The Guardian:
The lawyers who made the Venmo transactions were: Patrick Strawbridge, a partner at Consovoy McCarthy who recently successfully argued that affirmative action violated the U.S. Constitution; Kate Todd, who served as White House deputy counsel under Donald Trump at the time of the payment and is now a managing party of Ellis George Cipollone’s law office; Elbert Lin, the former solicitor general of West Virginia who played a key role in a Supreme Court case that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; and Brian Schmalzbach, a partner at McGuire Woods who has argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court.
Other lawyers who made payments include Manuel Valle, a graduate of Hillsdale College and the University of Chicago Law School who clerked for Thomas last year and is currently working as a managing associate at Sidley, and Liam Hardy, who was working at the Department of Justice’s office of legal counsel at the time the payment was made and now serves as an appeals court judge for the armed forces.
Will Consovoy, who died earlier this year, also made a payment. Consovoy clerked for Thomas during the 2008-09 term and was considered a rising star in conservative legal circles. After his death, The New York Times reported that Consovoy had come away from his time working for Thomas “with the conviction that the court was poised to tilt further to the right—and that constitutional rulings that had once been considered out of reach by conservatives, on issues like voting rights, abortion, and affirmative action, would suddenly be within grasp.”
Previous reporting by ProPublica has revealed how billionaire real estate tycoon and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow has lavished Thomas with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts over the past 25 years—including paying for luxury vacations, Thomas’ mother’s home, and Thomas’ grandnephew’s private school tuition.
Crow has relationships with several right-wing groups involved in Supreme Court cases since Thomas was first confirmed to the bench in 1991. In addition, his own real estate company, Crow Holdings, was directly implicated in a 2021 case before the court. As The Lever reported earlier this year, Thomas voted to end the Covid-era federal eviction moratorium after Crow Holdings described the lifesaving policy as a threat to its “profit margins.”
Americans for Tax Fairness has shown that after Thomas provided a deciding vote in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Crow family’s average annual campaign contributions ballooned by 862%, from $163,241 before 2010 to $1.57 million since. Furthermore, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Crow “personally took park in the creation” of the dark money system that blossomed in the wake of that 5-4 ruling.
On Sunday, a New York Times article about Thomas’ membership in the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans exposed how the justice has “received benefits—many of them previously unreported—from a broader cohort of wealthy and powerful friends” than was previously known.
Thomas’ failure to disclose handouts from multiple benefactors in violation of federal ethics rules has raised questions about his judicial independence and prompted demands for his resignation or impeachment. Notably, he is far from alone when it comes to conflicts of interest on the Supreme Court.
Politico reported earlier this year that just days after his April 2017 confirmation, Justice Neil Gorsuch and his business partners sold a 40-acre Colorado ranch for almost $2 million to an individual whose name was not initially disclosed. The buyer, Brian Duffy, is the CEO of a law firm that has since been involved in 22 cases before the court.
Last month, ProPublica revealed that Justice Samuel Alito took an undisclosed private jet flight to Alaska in 2008 with Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager with direct links to cases that reached the court in subsequent years. Singer also has financial connections to right-wing groups opposed to President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan, which was overturned last month with the help of Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas.
Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) announced Monday that the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the pair’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act next Thursday. The legislation seeks to establish a code of conduct for the high court, fortify financial disclosure rules, and strengthen recusal requirements for justices.
In addition to imposing robust ethics rules, progressives have called for other changes to disempower the country’s “rogue” justices, including adding seats—a move that has been made seven times throughout U.S. history.
Despite the historical precedent and the recent spate of devastating decisions handed down by the Supreme Court’s reactionary majority, Biden recently dismissed the idea of court expansion, arguing that it would “politicize” the nation’s top judicial body.
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