Harlan Crow has already defended the generous, undisclosed gifts he’s bestowed on Clarence Thomas over the years in a series of lengthy statements to the outlets that reported on the exchanges this spring. But in an interview with the Atlantic published Monday, the billionaire GOP benefactor expanded on his relationship with the right-wing justice — and while his comments added some interesting nuance to the situation, they also failed to address the issue at hand.
Speaking to Graeme Wood, who was among those who had publicly stuck up for Crow after the public became aware of his collection of Nazi memorabilia, the Texas real estate developer acknowledged that he likely enjoys “more influence than the ordinary Joe,” but insisted that he would never “think about talking about matters that relate to the judiciary with Justice Clarence Thomas.” They have discussed work, of course: “It’s not realistic [for] two people [to] be friends and not talk about their jobs from time to time,” he said. But Crow said he views discussion of actual cases to be “off limits” and that he isn’t a “law guy” anyway, so it would be “absurd” for him to talk to Thomas about legal matters anyway. “We talk about life,” Crow said. “We’re two guys who are the same age and grew up in the same era. We share a love of Motown.”
And why should the public trust that their friendship — and the lavish gifts and lucrative real estate transactions Thomas failed to report — is mostly based on, say, a love for the Supremes, and has nothing to do with their activism, Crow from behind the scenes and Thomas from the bench? Because, according to Crow, they’re both just good guys. “I’m not trying to say I’m this moral paragon, because I’m not,” Crow told Wood. “But I do believe that I’m on the right side of right, morally and legally.”
“I believe Justice Thomas to be a person of the highest character,” he continued, adding that it is “kind of weird to think that if you’re a justice on the Supreme Court, you can’t have friends.”
Of course, their individual character and their friendship is beside the point: In a democracy, the public shouldn’t have to take the rich and powerful at their word. The rich and powerful should be subject to the same legal and ethical standards as everyone else — and if they fail to meet them, there should be reliable systems in place to hold them accountable.
But that’s not the case here. Thomas’s failure to disclose the luxury vacations Crow gifted him, the private school tuition Crow paid for his Thomas’s grand-nephew, and the properties Crow bought from Thomas and his family have underscored the urgent need for stronger ethical and transparency standards at the high court, whose justices enjoy lifetime appointments and awesome power over their fellow citizens. But Chief Justice John Roberts has made clear he is unwilling enact such standards — and Republicans, who built the Supreme Court’s current conservative supermajority, have stood in the way of Democrats’ efforts to enact legislation to address the issue. “I was hoping that my feelings about the need for a code of ethics at the Supreme Court would have bipartisan support,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin told me after a hearing on the matter last month. Instead, “It appears that Republicans have taken the position that they’re not going to do anything to rein in the court, or to hold any justice accountable for what’s been reported.”
Perhaps Crow is telling the truth and nothing about this is as untoward as it looks from the outside. But as it stands, there appears no way — beyond what journalists and Democratic investigators have been able to shine a light on — for the public to know that. We are just expected to trust that all these rich ideologues, hanging out together on private yachts and in private clubs, are people of such “good character” that they wouldn’t dare mix the personal and professional. Or even to believe that they maybe aren’t even that powerful anyway, because Crow wasn’t able to prevent the election of Donald Trump, whom he abhors, or prevent the overturn of the federal right to an abortion, which he told Wood he supports. But the Supreme Court should not be operating on the honor system — and without real reform or accountability, it is going to continue to bleed the public trust that gives its decisions legitimacy.