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What Do Clarence Thomas and Martha Stewart Have in Common?

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink
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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

Should U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas be allowed to amend his financial-disclosure forms and get away with an apparent violation of 18 U.S.C. 1001?

Domestic diva Martha Stewart undoubtedly would answer with a resounding, "Hell, no!" So, too, would sports stars Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds (baseball), and Marion Jones (track and field). Stewart and the sports stars all ran afoul of 18 U.S.C. 1001, commonly known as "making false statements," and they either have paid a price, or almost certainly will.

So why does it look like Clarence Thomas is likely to get off with amending false statements? We will examine that question, but it should be noted that at least one major editorial voice is saying Thomas should not get off lightly. A watchdog group is calling for Thomas to step down, followed by a criminal investigation. And a lawyer source tells Legal Schnauzer that Thomas could face serious consequences in the legal profession, such as loss of his law license.

Thomas is not off the hook yet, and The St. Petersburg Times says that's the way it should be. In an editorial titled "Lack of Disclosure Should Be Pursued," the Times states:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas must think it's nobody's business how his wife earns her money. But he is wrong. And his omission of his wife's substantial salary from federal financial disclosures between 2003 and 2009 can be read no other way than a purposeful flouting of the law.

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Is the Times buying Thomas' explanation that he "misunderstood" directions on disclosure forms over a 20-year period? Not exactly. In fact, the Times echoes the words of Common Cause, the watchdog group that helped break the Thomas story:

As Common Cause noted, Thomas is "called upon daily to understand and interpret the most complicated legal issues of our day." It is implausible that he "misunderstood simple directions of a federal disclosure form."

The matter, the Times states, should wind up before the nation's top law-enforcement officer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

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Thomas has expressed opposition to public disclosure in the past. He is the single justice who has argued that disclosure requirements for large political donations violate the Constitution. The disclosure omissions may be a statement of personal principles.

Regardless of Thomas' reasons, there is an important public purpose for financial disclosure laws. They allow litigants before the court to assess whether a justice has a conflict of interest that should disqualify him or her from judgment of a particular case.

The 1978 Ethics in Government Act requires federal officials to disclose income from spouses. When federal judges ignore the law, the act directs the Judicial Conference to refer those matters to the attorney general. This seems like a clear case. Despite Thomas' efforts to correct the record, the matter should be pursued.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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