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Tipsheet

Who is Planting All the Bogus Hatchet Jobs on Conservative SCOTUS Justices?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

As we mentioned in yesterday's post, all of these hatchet job "investigative" "news" stories about conservative Supreme Court justices' supposed 'ethics' issues have just happened to sprout up over the span of a few weeks -- and yes, they're exclusively about the conservative justices.  We've discussed the incredibly feeble nature of these allegations, which mainly rely on inventing entirely new and separate standards for certain justices, in order to manufacture a cloud of corruption-adjacent suspicion over their reputations, and therefore the legitimacy of the Court's conservative majority itself.  The scheme is not subtle: (1) Someone is planting these weak 'oppo research' hits against right-leaning justices and their allies, (2) ideologically-aligned media organizations are publishing the stories, (3) progressives are eagerly sharing the sensational-sounding headlines on social media in order to amplify the 'scandal,' leading to (4) Senate Democrats holdings hearings about "ethical concerns" and "reforms."  As the Wall Street Journal's editors wrote earlier this week, "it’s important to understand that this isn’t about ethics at all. This is another front in the political campaign to delegitimize the Supreme Court, with a goal of tarnishing its rulings and subjecting it to more political control."

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The latest in this string of empty "bombshells" is another allegation against Justice Clarence Thomas regarding financial disclosures.  As Katie noted earlier, one of the Thomases' close friends has publicly detailed what, exactly, happened -- and did not happen -- in this case.  Journalist Tim Carney observes that if this is the substantive extent of this 'scandal,' it amounts to yet another embarrassingly partisan nothing-burger.  "Unless a reporter can poke a major hole in this statement, this latest story looks like a total flop (to put it nicely)."  Here is the key portion of the statement from Thomas' friend, Mark Paoletta, a prominent attorney who has worked in multiple Republican presidential administrations:

This story is another attempt to manufacture a scandal about Justice Thomas. But let’s be clear about what is supposedly scandalous now: Justice Thomas and his wife devoted twelve years of their lives to taking in and caring for a beloved child—who was not their own—just as Justice Thomas’s grandparents had done for him. They made many personal and financial sacrifices to do this. And along the way, their friends joined them in doing everything possible to give this child a future. Harlan Crow’s tuition payments made directly to these schools on behalf of Justice Thomas’s great nephew did not constitute a reportable gift. Justice Thomas was not required to disclose the tuition payments made directly to Randolph Macon and the Georgia school on behalf of his great nephew because the definition of a “dependent child” under the Ethics in Government Act (5 U.S.C. 13101 (2)) does not include a “great nephew.” It is limited to a “son, daughter, stepson or stepdaughter.” Justice Thomas never asked Harlan Crow to pay for his great nephew’s tuition. And neither Harlan Crow, nor his company, had any business before the Supreme Court.

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That last sentence is crucial.  It does not appear as though that Clarence Thomas breached any ethical or disclosure requirements by not including these tuition payments.  But more importantly, once again, the wealthy friend in question (the same man with whom the Thomases travel and vacation) never had any business before the Court.  This might be considered corruption if Thomas withheld required information and abused his position of power to benefit his friend's legal interests.  From what we've seen, nobody is even trying to allege the latter half of that hypothetical quid pro quo.  Mollie Hemingway asks a fair question:

It's possible that all of these outlets -- from ProPublica, to Politico, to the New York Times -- all just happened to stumble across dormant, non-damning stories connected to the Supreme Court's conservative members over the course of a small handful of weeks.  Just like it's possible that the White House got really lucky in guessing the exact, somewhat obscure topic a reporter at the Los Angeles Times would ask about when they awarded her the designated first question at a recent presidential press conference.  It strikes me as more likely that some individuals or entities are emptying their clip of hilariously weak 'dirt' on the Court's conservative wing in a strategic way, coordinating with their fellow partisans in the press to deliver a pretext for Democrats to exploit in assailing an institution they do not currently control.  Mysteriously, none of these claims, several of which involve years-old issues, ever materialized until early-to-mid 2023.  And none of them involve any of the Court's liberal justices.  How strange.  One might conclude that's because Democrat-appointed justices are scrupulous paragons of virtue and ethical rectitude, unlike their beastly and corrupt right-wing counterparts.  Alternatively, one might conclude it's because the whole point of this unsubtle project is to undermine specific justices for patently ideological and political reasons.  If you're inclined to believe the former explanation, please explain the total lack of media-driven 'scandal' braying around these examples:

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Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson didn’t get the same attention when she revised her financial disclosures in 2022. Her oversights were far more extensive than Justice Thomas’s. There was also no outcry in 2020 when Justice Sonia Sotomayor amended her financial disclosures after the group Fix the Court found that she hadn’t disclosed reimbursement for trips to universities. Nor was there an uproar when the OpenSecrets website reported in 2019 that former Justice Stephen Breyer was reimbursed for trips some 219 times from 2004-2018. Some of those trips were supported by the wealthy Pritzker family. There are other examples involving liberal Justices.

How about this one, which Katie also mentioned?

Liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor declined to recuse herself from multiple copyright infringement cases involving book publisher Penguin Random House despite having been paid millions by the firm for her books, making it by far her largest source of income, records show. In 2010, she got a $1.2 million book advance from Knopf Doubleday Group, a part of the conglomerate. In 2012, she reported receiving two advance payments from the publisher totaling $1.9 million. In 2013, Sotomayor voted in a decision for whether the court should hear a case against the publisher called Aaron Greenspan v. Random House, despite then-fellow Justice Stephen Breyer recusing after also receiving money from the publisher. 

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"I think you can make a case for Sotomayor not needing to recuse, but this is far worse than at least half a dozen of the recent major media stories targeting conservative justices and those same outlets have zero interest in it," one conservative writer and attorney observes.  In addressing those other stories about leftist justices, the Journal editorial is quick to add, "we believe none of these Justices did anything wrong."  And to be very clear about something, raising these examples is not 'whataboutism.'  It's aboutism.  If frail, debatable, unserious ostensible 'ethical lapses' are deemed highly problematic for conservative justices, but (arguably less) frail, debatable, unserious ostensible 'ethical lapses' are totally ignored by the very same 'problematic' police, the reality of what is happening here becomes painfully obvious.  This institution-assaulting collusion should be loudly called out for what it is, and elicit vigorous defenses and counter-attacks.  And the targeted justices should completely ignore the unscrupulous rage machine and continue going about their work.

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