Twenty Democratic members of Congress wrote federal judicial authorities on Sept. 29 to request a formal Justice Department probe of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas for failing to disclose junkets, other gifts and income.
A coalition of both black and
white Democrats -- including Judiciary Committee ranking member and Congressional Black Caucus co-founder John Conyers (MI) -- told the Judicial Conference
of the United States that it is required by law to seek a Justice
Department investigation of the new allegations against Thomas and his
wife, Republican political activist Virginia Lamp
They are portrayed above at a fake swearing-in ceremony at the White House on Oct. 18, 1991. The late Democratic Justice Byron White assisted in the ceremony, which was rushed to accommodate Thomas supporters in town and to show the public that further criticism of Thomas was pointless because he had already ascended to a lifetime post. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, after mourning the death of his own wife, presided at the real ceremony on Oct. 23, which was kept private from the public.
Regarding the new controversies: Most of the allegations became public this year. They involve claims of undisclosed gifts, junkets, vast income and other conflicts, along with justice's failure to report his wife's earnings on annual judicial disclosure forms that he signed under oath.
"Due to the simplicity of the disclosure requirements, along with Justice Thomas's high level of legal training and experience," said the congressional letter to judicial conference secretary James C. Duff, "it is reasonable to infer that his failure to disclose his wife's income for two decades was willful, and the Judicial Conference has a non-discretionary duty to refer this case to the Department of Justice."
To be sure, the 20 signatures are relatively few from a 435-member, Republican-run House. Still, the letter marks a significant step in justifying a criminal probe for what Thomas defenders and the nation's oft-timid watchdog institutions trivialize as either oversights by a busy public servant or else potential "ethics" issues that have scant remedy as a practical matter.
I observed the start of the Thomas era
first-hand by attending his 1991 confirmation hearings.
The hearings reached a dramatic point 20 years ago in early October as Thomas faced sexual harassment claims by law professor Anita Hill. She was the fellow Yale Law School graduate who had been a Thomas subordinate at two different federal agencies during the early 1980s.
In February of this year,
I hosted Common Cause Vice President Mary Boyle on my "MTL Washington
Update" radio show just after her group disclosed that Thomas had been
hiding his wife's income.
Last week, our radio audience heard also from retired federal judge Lillian McEwen, a former Thomas lover from the early 1980s and author of the compelling memoir, DC Unmasked and Undressed, published earlier this year. She said -- based on Thomas telling her about "Long Dong Silver," among other shared experiences -- that he apparently perjured himself during his confirmation hearings when he denied under oath that same kind of pornography use that Hill had described him mentioning.
Characteristically, Thomas has largely remained silent about the new allegations, aside from disclosing that he promptly corrected his financial statements after Common Cause exposed them in late January. We'll update today's report with any comment we obtain from him or Duff's Administrative Office. That office implements decisions by the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican colleague of Thomas.
Significantly, the congressional letter-signers demand an open-ended DOJ investigation, unlike the forgive-and-forget stance that most in Washington accord to the powerful. "Based upon the multiple public reports," the letter said, "Justice Thomas's actions may constitute a willful failure to disclose, which would warrant a referral by the Judicial Conference to the Department of Justice, so that appropriate civil or criminal actions can be taken." (My emphasis added.)
There are many reasons for those in Washington's power structure to ignore each others' sexual and financial scandals, especially in this instance. For one, Thomas has influential friends who orchestrated his court nomination and who want to keep him there. Also, he is the court's only African-American justice, a status he uses to intimidate critics. For example, he denounced Hill and inquiring Senators alike at his hearing for what he described as a "high-tech lynching." The tactic worked.
for a moment a different scenario: Suppose the Senate Judiciary Committee
chaired in 1991 by Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden had delayed the hearing to allow more investigation of the allegations
against Thomas? Suppose the senators had informed the public with more
testimony instead of rushing to a 52-48 vote confirming Thomas?