The “C” Word
It’s being called an “ethics crisis.” A new euphemism enters the lexicon of prestige media coverage of high U.S. officials. As we all now know, the “C” word is not used in America.
As we all know, the “C” word is not used in America. So it’s being called an “ethics problem” instead.
Let’s review a few of the undisputed facts anyway. These have emerged in 2023 from the publication ProPublica. The latest is the discovery that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito accepted an all-expense paid vacation to a luxury fishing lodge in Alaska, paid for by a hedge-fund billionaire, Paul Singer. During the next six years, this same hedge fund repeatedly came before the court in various cases, including one in 2014 where the fund claimed damages against the Argentine government. The Court ruled in its favor, which resulted in $2.4 billion paid to Singer’s firm. Justice Alito did not recuse himself from the case. After the story broke, he wrote a Wall Street Journal commentary accusing ProPublica of falsification, misrepresentation, and bias. The facts, he wrote, “would not cause a reasonable and unbiased person to doubt my ability to decide the matters in question impartially.” Translation: “I absolve myself; case closed.”
Only a few months earlier, ProPublica had published similar revelations about another Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas. In this case, Thomas declared in 2004 gifts he had received from a major Republican donor, Harlan Crow, including a Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass. To Thomas’ embarrassment, all of this was reported by the Los Angeles Times in that same year.
Over the next two decades, Thomas and his wife, Ginni, were treated by billionaire Crow to luxury trips, private resorts, and cruises on a “superyacht.” Crow bought the house where Thomas’ mother was living and upgraded it. He also paid the tuition for a private school attended by Thomas’ grandnephew, whom he considers “as a son.” None of these gifts and payments were ever declared. In the meantime, Justice Thomas cast a key vote in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that allowed nearly unlimited donations to political parties and campaigns, thus aiding Crow’s own goal to bolster Republican coffers.
There are two, fairly simple take-aways from this information. First, the one institution of U.S. government that is least accountable to any other is corrupt. The word rings. Let me say it again: the Supreme Court is corrupt.
For the average U.S. citizen, who has grown up learning to venerate, fear, or, at the least, feel some degree of awe at the mention of this institution, to respect its power as above petty seductions, these five words do not belong together. They equate to saying the President is a spy for North Korea or an incompetent narcissist and barefaced philanderer.
More to the point, though: were the facts described above associated with high court officials in a developing country—say, in Africa or Latin America—the “C” word would be among the very first to be spoken, predictably and unquestionably, as if by reflex. Such elevated malfeasance happens all over the world, just not here at home. Indeed, it is invoked as a fairly routine way to divide advanced from non-advanced nations. Here’s a nice, recent example from a trusted source (Council on Foreign Relations)
Latin America’s judiciaries are engulfed in corruption scandals. In Colombia a former Supreme Court member was arrested on charges of corruption and bribery. In Peru multiple judges stand accused of trading favorable rulings and shortened sentences for money and perks…Mexico created a new national anti-corruption system, explicitly outlawing bribes, embezzlement, and the failure to disclose conflicts of interest, and creating a dedicated prosecutor to go after perpetrators.
Mexico, whom we in the U.S. spend much time upbraiding for its slide into illiberalism, may have a good idea here. U.S. Supreme Court justices, today as in the past, answer only to each other. The Constitution does include a provision allowing them to be impeached and removed by Congress, but this has never happened. The only attempt came in 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson enlisted his supporters in Congress to impeach Justice Samuel Chase for allowing partisanship to dictate his decisions. Whether the weight of irony figured in the matter isn’t entirely clear, but Chase was not convicted.
No other justice has ever been brought under such suspicion, even while the rest of the government has gone on roiling with imputations, aspersions, accusations, and scandals. The High Court has always been left on high, a temple on a hill. Consider that the most serious challenge to its authority in 200 years was that of FDR, who threatened to increase the number of justices. None of the founders, meanwhile, nor FDR, JFK, nor Reagan either, could have imagined a Court whose majority is dominated by far-right, reactionary Catholics. Be that as it may, the unwillingness to view a Supreme Court Justice as anything other than beyond serious reproach has become an institution of its own. Those who decree the law of the land must be allowed to inhabit the clouds.
The second take-away point is different. It is easy to forget that corruption requires a minimum of two parties. In the case of Thomas and Alito, these other parties were billionaires. Such men understand that the power of their wealth easily exceeds, seduces, the authority of officials. It doesn’t sound likely that either justice put up much resistance to accepting gifts from fervent partisans.
Yet the billionaires also know how to pretend innocence. That a key Republican donor like Harlan Crow would befriend a conservative Supreme Court Justice, who then claims only “friendship” is involved when he and his family are slushed with luxurious generosity, including money itself, seems nothing less than an insult to common intelligence. Thomas clearly understood the problem, as he kept silent about it and rarely talked to the press. Alito, bathed in arrogance, evidently thought no problem existed.
All four men have since acted as if the appearance of impropriety is either trivial or irrelevant. Republicans won’t care, and Democrats don’t matter. They seem to have perceived the situation correctly. After their cozy relationship was revealed in April and calls from the Dems went out for “ethics reform,” the Court, in a rare response, unanimously signed a Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices, which was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee. To read it is to encounter the redoubt of judicial self-defense: “Trust us. Nothing’s wrong, and none of your business.”
For now, the dust hangs in the air. The matter has left the pages of the prestige media, and the Court has continued to undo practices and promises to aid equality, the poorer members of society, and students with penalizing debt. Yet Senator Dick Durbin, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, wants a new bill on behalf of transparency. He’s not quite satisfied, it appears, that members of the Court are happy to accept extravagant gifts while rejecting help to the rest of society. For the time being, however, it appears corrupt members of the Celestial 9 can remain snug in “judicial independence” and an ethics-free lifestyle.
Photo by Kim Stiver