The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
Whether U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke the law by failing to report two decades of luxurious hospitality, private travel and one-of-a-kind gifts from a donor to the Republican Party is almost beside the point.
Thomas’ behavior, impeachable or not, mocks the ideal of fairness that the nation’s highest court is sworn to uphold. Then came news that Thomas sold property to the same Republican megadonor in 2014 — and failed to report that sale, as required by law.
As the American Bar Association put it earlier this year in a resolution drafted by the King County Bar Association, “If the legitimacy of the Court is diminished, the legitimacy of all our courts and our entire judicial system is imperiled.”
The association was calling for an enforceable code of ethics at the Supreme Court, the only governing body in America allowed to police itself. The lowest-ranking municipal magistrate ruling on parking tickets in downtown Seattle is bound by higher standards for safeguarding integrity.
Clearly, that needs to change. This country too long has accepted the absurd fiction that nine mortals who sit with lifetime jobs on the Supreme Court are somehow immune to flattery or favor.
Thomas, who professes to prefer Walmart parking lots to international travel, issued a statement attempting to defend his acceptance of undisclosed multimillion-dollar vacations from an influential billionaire. It said, basically, “Everyone told me not to worry about it.”
That is hardly reassuring.
So action promised by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is welcome, and overdue. On Monday, committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent a stern letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, imploring him to lay down new rules restoring confidence in the justices’ impartiality.
Follow-through is imperative. Two-thirds of Americans, increasingly cynical about the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, favor term limits for its justices or a mandatory retirement age, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted earlier this year.
This is not the first time that a sitting member has been subject to ethical scrutiny. In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas was investigated by Congress after he accepted a $20,000 retainer from a financier accused of insider trading. Fortas resigned before he could be impeached.
Should Thomas be pressured to make a similar move? His longtime mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, was renowned for accepting free hunting and fishing trips that he never reported, so it’s fair to ask why one justice, who is Black, would face censure that another, who is white, did not.
But it’s past time to draw a line and set some limits.
There can be no question about Thomas’ lack of concern for appearances and their effect; about 19 years of thumbing his nose at expectations for judicial behavior and the meaning of integrity. As long as he sits unsanctioned, the court’s reputation is tarnished.