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Is Clarence Thomas fit to serve with ties to a GOP donor? A law professor weighs in

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We are continuing to follow new revelations about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' finances. Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that for years, Thomas has been declaring rental income from a defunct real estate company, not the similarly named firm which took over its business. And today, CNN reported that Thomas intends to amend his financial disclosures to reflect a property sale to the Republican megadonor who has also taken Thomas on luxury vacations. The property sale and the vacations were first reported by ProPublica. As the disclosures mount, so does the big question - will Justice Thomas face any consequences for these reported disclosure violations?

University of Texas constitutional law professor Stephen Vladeck joins me now. Hey, Steve.

STEPHEN VLADECK: Hey, Scott. How are you?

DETROW: So we now have several different reports shedding light on various undisclosed finances. How does the latest alleged details update our overall understanding of Clarence Thomas and his financial reporting?

VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think the biggest headline of the more recent ones is the headline from CNN this morning that he's now going to go back and retroactively amend his 2014 disclosure; basically a tacit concession that the 2014 disclosure was wrong to omit that property sale reported by ProPublica. You know, Scott, if you take all of these pieces together, it seems increasingly clear that one of two things has to be true. Either Justice Thomas is remarkably careless when it comes to financial disclosure requirements that apply not just to Supreme Court justices but to large swaths of the entire federal government, or it's worse and that he's actually deliberately withholding this information from his disclosure forms because of what it would look like if this came out. You know, I don't know that we can be confident which of those is true, but it's got to be one of them.

DETROW: But let me ask you, assuming the CNN reporting is correct, does it surprise you that Thomas would be amending his disclosures? This is somebody who, for decades now, has made it very clear he doesn't particularly care what the public view on his actions is.

VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think this is actually a pretty good piece of evidence that that's not entirely true. And, indeed, this is going to be at least the third time that Justice Thomas will have to have gone back and retroactively amended his disclosures. He did it in 2011. At the time, he said he just didn't understand what the filing instructions were. He did it again in 2020. And so, you know, Scott, there comes a point where the fact that he is responding this way and doing it over and over again really, I think, stands in stark contrast to his public protestations that he's done nothing wrong and that everything was by the by.

DETROW: Let's take his relationship with Harlan Crow. You have the luxury vacations, now the reported property deal. There's reportedly a federal ethics law in question. But, you know, you can ask this in so many different ways with the Supreme Court. Who, if anyone, would enforce it?

VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is where we get into the stickiness of the Supreme Court as an institution. And historically, the way that any kind of ethics requirements were enforced against the Supreme Court was indirectly and through soft pressure. So, you know, the best case in point we have is the 1969 resignation of then-justice Abe Fortas, who, you know, wasn't under impeachment proceedings at the time, who wasn't under criminal indictment, indeed who probably hadn't done anything unlawful but who was nevertheless pressured off the court by mounting public blowback once it came out that he had had these dealings with a shady financier named Louis Wolfson. You know, Scott, that's been the norm historically. I think the question is whether, in our current political climate, we're going to see anything like that.

DETROW: I mean, we have seen how hard the partisan lines are over the Supreme Court. In about the 15 seconds we have left, would it surprise you for any sort of public pressure to mount and see more of a response from the court?

VLADECK: I think it's all iterative, Scott. The first step is more investigation, more process. You know, maybe the Senate Judiciary Committee can lead the way on this. And as we find out more and more about Justice Thomas, perhaps that public pressure eventually does ratchet up...

DETROW: That's...

VLADECK: ...And someone actually thinks that the court has to do something about this.

DETROW: That's Stephen Vladeck, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin. Thanks, Steve.

VLADECK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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