Clarence Thomas reportedly raised prospect of resigning from Supreme Court over salary

Years before Clarence Thomas accepted lavish gifts, he suggested lawmakers raise Supreme Court justices’ salaries

Ariana Baio
Monday 18 December 2023 16:43 GMT
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticised for conflict of interest

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was reportedly growing frustrated with his financial situation in the 2000s. He then made a comment to a Republican lawmaker suggesting “one or more justices” would leave the court if Congress did not raise their salaries soon.

The comment raised concerns among Republicans that Justice Thomas, a key conservative vote on the Supreme Court, might leave, according to a new report from ProPublica.

At the time, Justice Thomas was making $173,600. However, he was considerably less wealthy than some of the other justices and, according to the report, Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni, spent the first decade of his tenure borrowing money.

Shortly after their conversation, the Republican lawmaker, former Florida representative Cliff Sterns, wrote a letter to Justice Thomas saying he intended to look into “a bill to raise the salaries” of justices.

“As we agreed, it is worth a lot to Americans to have the Constitution properly interpreted. We must have the proper incentives here,” Mr Sterns wrote.

Though Congress never enacted legislation doing so, in the following years, Justice Thomas received lavish gifts from wealthy GOP donors and went on luxurious vacations – many of which went undisclosed, ProPublica revealed earlier this year.

The new report, part of ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into Supreme Court justices, gives some insightful background into Justice Thomas’ personal life before he began accepting gifts and vacations.

The report claims that in the year 2000, Mr Thomas and his wife were “hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt” and their finances had become considerably more difficult after they took in Justice Thomas’ grandnephew.

After Justice Thomas’ conversation with Mr Sterns, the lawmaker got to work attempting to draft legislation that would increase justices’ salaries.

In a classified memo obtained by the publication, the former Director of the Administrative Office of US Courts wrote to the former chief justice, William Rehnquist, about Mr Sterns’ efforts and asked Mr Rehnquist for guidance in handling the “delicate matter.”

Justice Thomas also pushed for Congress to remove a ban on justices making paid speeches. According to the report, Senator Mitch McConnell proposed a provision in a mid-2000s spending bill but it did not pass.

Government watchdog Accountable.US launches a campaign to call for recusals from allegedly conflicted Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas on the first day of The Supreme Court's 2023-2024 term on October 02, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images for Accountable.US)

However, in the following years, Justice Thomas notably became close with wealthy individuals who footed the bill for some of his payments.

Earl Dixon, the owner of a Florida pest control company, reportedly gave $5,000 toward Justice Thomas’ grandnephew’s school tuition in 2002.

Harlan Crow, a GOP megadonor, also paid for the grandnephew to attend a private boarding school in later years. Mr Crow also took the Thomas’ on several luxurious vacations.

ProPublica notes there is no evidence Justice Thomas raised the prospect of resigning with Mr Crow or other wealthy individuals he became acquainted with.

Two years after Justice Thomas spoke with Mr Sterns, he accepted a $1.5 million advance for his memoir, ProPublic reported. At the same time, Ginni Thomas began earning a “low six-figure” salary working with the Heritage Foundation.

ProPublica said people close to Justice Thomas undermined his statements about “one or more justices” leaving the court unless their salaries were raised. They said while he did complain about his financial situation at the time, they did not believe he would retire from his seat.

In 2019, when Justice Thomas was asked about Supreme Court justices’ salaries, he stated they were “plenty” saying that he and his wife “are doing fine.”

The Independent has contacted the Supreme Court for comment.

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