Our Supreme Ethics: A Painting of Clarence Thomas, Leonard Leo, Harlan Crow, et al.

The egregious ethics violations and probable law-breaking by our Supreme Court justice are explored in depth in this article from ProPublica:

Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire by Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski (4.6.2023) It is not terribly long but much worth a read.

We normally expect that judges will be circumspect and guarded in their attention to propriety and conflicts of interest. After all, they are supposed to be the even-handed, objective arbiters of the law. Two canons of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges 1 directly addresses this situation:

  • Canon 2: A Judge Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in all Activities
    (B) Outside Influence. A judge should not allow family, social, political, financial, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. A judge should neither lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. A judge should not testify voluntarily as a character witness.
  • Canon 5: A Judge Should Refrain from Political Activity

Thomas has said about his decades of gifts from the billionaire Harlan Crow, “Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.”2  This does not pass this basic smell test described in the Code of Conduct: “An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge’s honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired.” A gathering of influential, engaged political figures is not “personal hospitality”. It appears to be more of a cabal.

The painting (from approximately 2018) reproduced in the article and below is most telling. Perhaps even astonishing. This chummy meeting of five men, all of whom occupy positions of power in the conservative movement, was important enough to Harlan Crow, the billionaire funder of many right-wing politicians and policies, that he retained a photo-realist painter to memorialize it. No further comment about the strange statute in the background!

Leonard Leo is the Co-Chairman of the Federalist Society that vetted all of the recent additions to the Supreme Court. More on Leo here: Leonard Leo: the secretive rightwinger using billions to reshape America from The Guardian. And further in Senator Whitehouse’s series of Senate speeches The Scheme you will find “The Scheme 18: Leonard Leo’s $1.6 Billion Payday” (0n YouTube).

Peter Rutledge is a law professor and participant in the Federalist Society’s doings. He is also a former law clerk for Thomas.  Mark Paoletta is also a lawyer. He held several high offices in the Trump administration. He has represented Thomas’s wife Ginni in dealing with questions concerning the Jan 6 Insurrection. Just a few days ago he authored a piece in the National Review titled, “Yet Another Baseless Attack on Ginni Thomas“.

What a cushy environment to find these guys hanging out together. You don’t often see pictures of the rich and powerful in such a casual moment. Were they discussing their favorite NFL or NBA teams? Or how to stuff more conservative judges into the Federal judiciary and the Supreme Court?

This Is NOT A Singularity

Without too much trouble, I discovered that “personal hospitality” like this is actually part of a conservative dark money project that has been going on for years. Here is another Senator Whitehouse presentation, “The Scheme 19: “Operation Higher Court” and the Supreme Court Ethics Crisis” (on YouTube) 11.30.2022. It is 19 minutes long. Detailed, well documented, on target. Or turn to this NPR report for a briefer examination of a multi-year campaign by evangelical Christians to directly influence three Supreme Court Justices: “Former evangelical activist says he ‘pushed the boundaries’ in Supreme Court dealings” 12.8.2022. From this and other reporting it is clear that the Supreme Court should at least obey the ethics rules and laws that apply to every other person in the Federal Government. It is clear that their self-regulation is leading to the same sort of corruption by the rich and corporations that is a central feature of our politics and economy.


18:13 / 18:55



  1. Note that this code of ethics does not apply to the Supreme Court. Only courts lower down the judicial food chain. Apparently, our highest court is a self-regulating institution without the need for such guidance.
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/04/07/clarence-thomas-trips-crow-propublica/