PART ONE: STRANGE JUSTICE(S)
CLARENCE THOMAS LEARNS HOW TO READ A FORM
But Did Justice Thomas Also "Misunderstand" His Tax Return Instructions?
Written by Al Hutchison. Last updated Sunday January 30th, 2011
Word of one of our United States Supreme Court Associate Justices explaining that he misunderstood how to fill out a routine ethics form is more troubling for just one effort to explain the lack of -- uh -- judicial judgment. Two longtime Florida journalists, Al Hutchison and Martin Dyckman, take a crack at it this week. This is the first of the two essays. -db
By AL HUTCHISON
Although the confirmation processes on Capitol Hill are often extremely partisan and can leave their reputations a bit tattered, our nation’s Supreme Court justices generally are seen as the cream of the judicial crop and therefore deserving of our respect, if not always our agreement.
But then there’s Justice Clarence Thomas. He sometimes seems to behave in a way that sets him apart from his colleagues, and we’re not talking about his philosophical proclivities, which are reliably and consistently conservative, perhaps even extremely conservative.
Justice Thomas recently amended his annual financial disclosure forms for the past 20 years so that finally they correctly reflect the income his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, earned while she was toiling for the Labor Department during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, then on Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s and finally at the conservative think tank called the Heritage Foundation from 1998-2007. His alterations were made as a result of pressure from Common Cause, which holds to the rather sensible view that even Supreme Court justices must be accountable in such matters.
What’s the big deal? Well, the annual disclosures are the only practical mechanism available to the public or to litigants with cases before the high court for monitoring potential conflicts of interest by the justices.
Justice Thomas hadn’t been accountable, at least in the terms of these financial disclosure documents for two decades. Two decades!
The good justice blamed his multiple oversights on a “misunderstanding of the filing instructions.” His wife’s earnings, he explained, were only “inadvertently omitted” from his earlier filings. The American people, generally speaking, might be a bit surprised to discover that a justice of the Supreme Court could misunderstand the rather ordinary and plainly phrased filing instructions.
In fact, the form that Justice Thomas failed to properly complete carries a rather ominous warning that “any individual who knowingly and willfully falsifies or fails to file this report may be subject to civil and criminal sanctions.” One would think that, having read that warning, the person - especially a person qualified to occupy a seat on the highest court in the land - who is filling out the form would take special care to get it right.
Does this matter? Yes it does. This is not nit-picking. These forms, which by the way were properly filled out by all the other Supreme Court justices, are designed to assure the American people that the formal opinions of these justices are in no way affected by the sources of their income (or, by logical extension, the income of their spouses). In short, these forms are at least in part needed to identify any potential conflicts of interest so that the justices may scrupulously avoid them in arriving at their decisions.
Justice Thomas has long stood apart from his colleagues in other ways. For example, he alone never, ever asks questions during the open-to-the-public parts of the Supreme Court’s deliberations. Also, his wife is a militant and very public activist on behalf of conservative causes.
Americans should expect better from an individual occupying such a revered position.
(Al Hutchison is retired and living in Inverness, Florida. During his journalism career, he worked for nine daily newspapers in six states. For 15 years, he was the publisher of The Recorder, a small daily in Greenfield, Massachusetts.)