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Beyond Bruin Walk: Inappropriate financial ties decline public faith in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States is pictured. The American people deserve transparency from public service officials, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (David Rimer/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Lex Wang, Nicolas Greamo, and Laila Wheeler

May 31, 2023 9:32 p.m.

Bruins are faced with everyday issues that extend past the immediate confines of their Westwood campus. The Daily Bruin Opinion editors provide the latest commentary on state and nationwide issues that go far “Beyond Bruin Walk.”

Public confidence in the Supreme Court is at a record low, seemingly for justified reasons.

The most recent scandal surrounding the Court emerged after ProPublica reported about the close relationship between Justice Clarence Thomas and prominent conservative donor Harlan Crow. According to ProPublica, for two decades, Crow, a multibillionaire real estate developer and the son of the largest private landlord in the United States, spent large sums on lavish vacations, real estate deals and other financial benefits for Thomas and his family, none of which were disclosed to the public.

The American people deserve transparency and integrity from public service officials, especially those holding a spot on the most important court in the U.S. Thomas must choose to wield his power for the public good instead of himself moving forward.

ProPublica discovered recently that the Pin Point, Georgia, native and his family received a variety of gifts from Crow – including a half-million dollar donation to help Thomas’ wife establish a conservative political advocacy group called Liberty Central and the tuition for the expensive private school that Thomas’ grandnephew attended.

In the past, Thomas disclosed some gifts from Crow – including a $19,000 Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass – but most remained unreported in violation of federal laws on financial disclosures for public officials.

The close financial ties between the two even extend to Crow’s real estate enterprise. In 2014, Crow bought Thomas’ mother’s home, where she still lives today, for about $130,000 – a price that may have been substantially above market value – and undertook a series of extensive renovations on the property.

Although federal law requires the disclosure of property sales valued above $1,000, once again, Thomas never reported the deal.

When confronted with these undisclosed gifts and financial transactions, Thomas and Crow defended their actions as evidence of their strong friendship. Thomas in particular claimed that the gifts were acceptable because neither Crow nor his companies had business before the Supreme Court.

This, unsurprisingly, is blatantly untrue.

In 2005, the Court declined to hear an appeal from an architecture firm that sued Trammell Crow Residential, the real estate conglomerate founded by Crow’s father. The architecture company, Womack + Hampton Architects LLC, was seeking damages of $25 million in the case.

Crow was then a chief executive of Crow Holdings, which partially owned Trammell Crow Residential. Yet Thomas did not recuse himself from the case, and the court’s denial of the appeal ensured the company would not be held liable for alleged copyright infringement on the architectural designs that the firm had created while contracted by Trammell Crow Residential.

Thomas’ refusal to recuse himself, a decision which certainly had potential financial implications for Crow, is deeply troubling. The fact that Thomas claimed he had never judged a case involving Crow, in clear opposition to the facts, is even worse.

The Supreme Court has long relied on its image as an impenetrable Washington institution casting judgements from above the political fray to shield itself from controversy. The fact of the matter, however, is that responsible and sensible governance requires honesty and transparency.

Currently, the Senate Judiciary Committee – which is conducting the investigation into the situation – has not chosen and will likely not choose to subpoena Thomas. Instead, they’ve done the next best thing by sending a letter to Crow.

However, on May 22 – the deadline for the multibillionaire to respond – Crow denied the committee’s request for additional information about his personal relationship with the Supreme Court justice. In fact, he indicated that he believed the committee did not have the authority to investigate the situation, even expressing confusion over the idea that “if you’re a justice on the Supreme Court, you can’t have friends,” in an interview with The Atlantic.

Of course, Thomas and Crow’s wrongdoings have nothing to do with the fact that a Supreme Court justice isn’t allowed to have friends. It’s about the ethical and moral failings we have seen from both individuals – especially the one who sits on the highest court in the federal judiciary of the U.S. – over the past couple of decades.

In a past installment of “Beyond Bruin Walk,” the Opinion editors discussed the necessity in holding former President Trump accountable for his actions. That extends to the courts as well.

Because in a country which claims to have roots in integrity and justice, there sure is a lot of corruption.

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Lex Wang | Editor in chief
Wang is the 2024-2025 editor in chief. She was previously the 2022-2023 Opinion editor and the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. She is Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to Copy, News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Design, Photo and Video.
Wang is the 2024-2025 editor in chief. She was previously the 2022-2023 Opinion editor and the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. She is Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to Copy, News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Design, Photo and Video.
Nicolas Greamo | Opinion editor
Greamo is the 2024-2025 Opinion editor and a Photo staffer. He was previously an assistant Opinion editor from 2022 to 2024. Greamo is a fourth-year history and labor studies student from Washington, D.C.
Greamo is the 2024-2025 Opinion editor and a Photo staffer. He was previously an assistant Opinion editor from 2022 to 2024. Greamo is a fourth-year history and labor studies student from Washington, D.C.
Laila Wheeler | Opinion editor
Wheeler is a 2023-2024 Opinion editor. She currently serves on the editorial board and was previously an assistant Opinion editor and columnist. She is a third-year public affairs, education and sociology student from Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
Wheeler is a 2023-2024 Opinion editor. She currently serves on the editorial board and was previously an assistant Opinion editor and columnist. She is a third-year public affairs, education and sociology student from Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
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