Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appreciates the finer things in life. He claims to pass the time in Wal-Mart parking lots, but story after story shows that he actually prefers free rides on superyachts and private jets. And as it turns out, he has been spending even more time cozying up to rightwing billionaires than was previously known to the public. According to new reporting by ProPublica, in 2008 and 2018, Thomas attended at least two lavish “donor summits” where members of the conservative upper crust strategized about how to restructure the American economy and political life—and, even more importantly, about how to raise the money required to do it.
The summits are hosted by an outfit branded as “Stand Together” but best known as the Koch Network, a libertarian political organization founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Thomas’s presence at these events, which typically take place in lavish resorts, was part of the draw for the conservative legal movement’s financiers to attend: A 2010 invitation, for example, promised donors an opportunity to combat “public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it” and touted Thomas as a previously featured guest. Donors must give at least $100,000 a year just to get a foot in the door, per ProPublica, and donors who give in the millions get perks like dinners with Charles Koch and “high-profile guests”—guests like Thomas.
In 2018, Thomas enjoyed a private dinner with some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Republican political projects like ending paid sick leave, repealing donor disclosure laws, and solidifying the conservative capture of the federal judiciary. That same year, the Kochs announced that a former employee of Thomas’s wife, Ginni, would lead a new initiative to get more Trump nominees confirmed to the federal bench.
A source told ProPublica that at one of these dinners, Thomas “discussed his judicial philosophy” with donors who “found it fascinating” and wanted to “feel special” and “feel on the inside.” Essentially, the Koch Network offers a tiered membership rewards program for super-rich conservatives, and Clarence Thomas is one of the rewards available for the right price.
Justice Thomas violated: 1) financial disclosure laws, 2) laws prohibiting judges from participating in partisan fundraising (the Kochs have a Super PAC) and 3) recusal laws for judges. 28 U.S.C. 455. He simply does not understand or care about the law.https://t.co/s1Nnk1KcRb
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) September 22, 2023
Thomas’s role at these summits evolved out of his friendship with the Kochs, cultivated during years of trips to Bohemian Grove, an ultra secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California. (Outsiders aren’t supposed to know this—members often joke that “the only place you should be publicly associated with the Grove is in your obituary.”) This treasured privacy allows men to speak freely over $500 bottles of wine about matters like the Chevron doctrine, a landmark Supreme Court decision that has long been a thorn in the Koch’s side—and that, in a wild coincidence, the Court may overrule this term. One year, Thomas delivered an address to one of the retreat’s fancier and more Republican-heavy “camps”; a source who also attended remembered feeling “taken with how comfortable he was in that environment, and how popular.”
John E. Jones III, a retired federal judge appointed by George W. Bush, told ProPublica that Thomas’s conduct “takes my breath away, frankly,” and would have been unthinkable for a judge not on the Supreme Court. “I’d have gotten a letter that would’ve commenced a disciplinary proceeding,” he added.
Congress has proposed legislation that, if enacted, would impose at least some accountability on Thomas and company, with measures like establishing a code of conduct for justices, expanding the size of the Court, and creating term limits for its members. But for now, the Court, Clarence, and the billionaires who pay for access to him remain utterly unchecked.