If you need more proof that America is slipping further and further into oligarchy, look no further than recent revelations about the Supreme Court.
Oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group of typically wealthy and corrupt people wield power. It derives from the Greek words oligoi (“few”) and arkhein (“to rule”). Over at the Patriotic Millionaires, we regularly describe how oligarchs use their wealth to sway elections and influence legislation. But recently, numerous investigative reports have revealed how billionaires – that is, American oligarchs – have used their wealth to directly influence Supreme Court Justices.
For today’s Closer Look, we want to give you a full rundown of all of these reports and discuss what can be done to safeguard our highest court from oligarchic influence.
We’ll start with the worst offender, Justice Clarence Thomas. On April 6, ProPublica released a bombshell report that detailed Thomas’ close association with Harlan Crow, a billionaire real estate mogul and well-known GOP donor. The report revealed that, for over twenty years, Thomas has gone on luxury vacations aboard Crow’s yacht (which Crow then used to reduce his tax bills), flown on his private jet, and stayed at his private resort in the Adirondacks. Thomas failed to disclose any of these and, worse, did not recuse himself on cases that Crow’s business had before the Supreme Court.
Since then, there has been a steady drip of reports which have exposed Thomas’ deep connections with wealthy elites. Shortly after securing his place on the Supreme Court, Thomas joined the exclusive Horatio Alger Association, where he hobnobbed with elites and gave them unique access to the Court – a privilege the general public would never be afforded. In 1999, Anthony Welters, a wealthy healthcare executive, underwrote Thomas’ purchase of a $267,320 luxury RV vehicle. In 2008, Crow paid for Thomas’ grandnephew’s private boarding school tuition. In 2012, conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo paid Thomas’ wife, Ginni, $25,000 for consulting work; Leo routed the payment through Kellyanne Conway, who he asked to bill his nonprofit, with no mention of Ginni, and then use the money to pay Ginni. Although corrupt on its face, this example becomes even more egregious when considering that, later that year, Leo’s nonprofit, the Judicial Education Project, filed a brief in a landmark voting rights case. In 2014, Crow bought a string of properties from Thomas. And in 2021, Thomas voted to end an eviction ban which threatened Crow’s real estate empire.
Then, in a grand finale, last week, ProPublica published a bombshell report that laid out the full extent of Thomas’ connections with the wealthy and well-connected. According to the exposé, over the course of his three decades on the Court, courtesy of his billionaire friends, Thomas has accepted no fewer than 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, 8 helicopter rides, a dozen VIP passes to sporting events (often involving luxury skyboxes), 2 stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica, and 1 standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club.
Samuel Alito’s sins pale in comparison to Thomas’, but they’re still blatantly unethical. In June, ProPublica published a report which revealed that, in 2008, Justice Alito attended a luxury fishing trip in Alaska with hedge fund billionaire and GOP donor Peter Singer. Alito also accepted a ride to the fishing resort on Singer’s private jet. Alito failed to disclose the trip and did not recuse himself from any of the cases which Singer’s business had before the Court.
Following the publication of the report, Alito took the unprecedented step of personally defending his choices in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, asserting that he had no obligation to recuse himself from Singer’s cases or disclose the trip on financial disclosure reports. He justified his decision to fly on Singer’s jet by saying “[the] seat…would have otherwise been vacant.”
Last month, David B. Rivkin Jr. co-authored a gratuitously flattering op-ed about an interview he conducted with Alito in The Wall Street Journal. Rivkin is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Moore v. United States, a case which has the potential to kill wealth tax proposals, including our own OLIGARCH Act. You would think they might try to hide their association a little better, but alas!
Neil Gorsuch also has questions to answer about his connections with billionaires. In April, news broke that nine days after Gorsuch was confirmed on the Supreme Court, a man by the name of Brian Duffy bought a 40-acre tract of property in Colorado from Gorsuch. Duffy is the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, one of the country’s biggest law firms. Gorsuch did not disclose the purchase, nor did he recuse himself from any of the 22 cases that Greenberg Traurig has argued before the Court since the purchase.
You might be wondering how Justices on the Supreme Court could get away with such egregious ethics failures. The answer is pretty simple: because they can. Unlike the 1500 other federal judges in lower courts across the US, the Supreme Court doesn’t have a code of conduct. Yes, you read that correctly – the nine Justices on our nation’s highest court have no formal code of conduct that they must abide by.
Since the reports have come out, some Democrats have taken small initial steps to hold the Justices to higher standards of ethics. Senator Ron Wyden, the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked Harlan Crow to provide a full and detailed account of his gifts to Justice Thomas. Senators Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse led the effort in the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act of 2023, which would, among other things, require the Supreme Court to adopt a formal code of conduct.
These are certainly steps in the right direction, but unfortunately, Democrats will need to show some gumption to get around Republicans’ stonewalling. After the first ProPublica bombshell about Clarence Thomas dropped, Republicans shrugged off the allegations. Senator John Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, claimed, “It happens all the time. Justices…are entitled to have friends.” They further argue that Congress doesn’t have the authority to force the Court to adopt a code of ethics because of the separation of powers. In Rivkin’s sycophantic and fawning Wall Street Journal op-ed, Alito agreed with this assertion, commenting “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it: no provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court—period.”
It’s clear that some Justices on the Supreme Court do possess the ability to hold themselves to high ethical standards. Justice Elena Kagan once turned down a simple gift of bagels and lox from a group of high school friends out of concern for ethical violations. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has caught flack in the press for promoting her books, but it’s worth noting that at a children’s book festival a few years ago, Sotomayor declined a flight upgrade, a hotel upgrade, free lunch and dinner, and a $250 stipend. But it’s beyond clear that we cannot expect the same for their colleagues, and that the adoption of a formal binding code of conduct for the nine Justices on the Court is long overdue.
Public confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low. People don’t believe that government officials work for them or their interests, and that includes the Supreme Court. If the Justices are looking to improve their standing in the public, the solution is simple: look in the mirror and dissociate themselves with their oligarch friends.
The Patriotic Millionaires