Earl Warren, a Republican, became U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice in October 1953 during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration.
John Roberts, a Republican, became U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice in September 2005 during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Both Chief Justices faced a crisis of ethics involving the most controversial members of their courts.
With Chief Justice Warren, it was Associate Justice Abe Fortas, a liberal Democrat appointed to the Court in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.
With Chief Justice Roberts, it is Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative appointed to the Court in 1993 by President George H.W. Bush.
The appointments of both justices were exceedingly controversial—as was Fortas’ brief four-year tenure on the bench and has been Thomas’ 31 years on the Court.
Fortas was the anathema to political conservatives, while Thomas has been an anathema to political liberals.
In 1968, it was revealed that Fortas had accepted an adjunct teaching position at American University that carried a $15,000 salary. The salary was problematic because Fortas’ prior law firm clients, who had cases headed to the Supreme Court, had funded the position. The $15,000.00 salary represented 40% of his salary as a Supreme Court Justice.
Then, on May 4, 1969, Life Magazine broke a story that Justice Fortas had accepted $20,000 from a charity foundation supporting civil rights and religious freedoms funded by Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson who was under investigation at the time by the U.S. Justice Department for violating security laws. The investigation would lead to Wolfson’s indictment and imprisonment.
President Nixon, and his conservative Republican colleagues, sicced Attorney General John Mitchell (who would later occupy a federal prison cell) on Fortas. Mitchell pressured Fortas (probably under threat of possible indictment of the Justice’s wife) to resign from the Court on May 14, 1969, allowing Nixon to appoint Harry Blackmun to replace him the following year.
Although Chief Justice Warren knew that Fortas’ resignation was a political hit job orchestrated by President Nixon, the Chief Justice nonetheless urged Fortas to resign to protect the integrity of the High Court.
Recent media disclosures revealed that Justice Thomas has received hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in gifts, benefits, and real estate deals from Texas real estate billionaire and Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow. The Justice described the high-end gifts, luxury travel on Crow’s private jet and yacht, and expensive vacations in the U.S. and foreign countries as “personal hospitality” between “family friends.” One trip with his “family friend” was estimated to carry a value of $500,000.00 alone.
More recently, the Washington Post reported that Thomas has failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in rental income from a Nebraska company set up by his wife, Ginni, and her relatives in the 1980s that has not existed since 2006. Yet Thomas has continued to report an annual income of $50,000 to $100,000 yearly from the defunct company.
And it has been disclosed that between 2003 and 2007, Thomas reported that his wife had no income when she made $686,000 during that period with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Thomas dismisses these failures to report on improper paperwork, a lack of understanding of the law, and, worse yet, that the disclosure forms regarding “personal hospitality” were too tricky for him to understand.
And what have Republicans done after these serious ethical, borderline criminal lapses by Justice Thomas? Absolutely nothing.
Congressional Republican leaders have elected to turn a blind eye to the lapses. Chief Justice Roberts has remained silent and failed step up to protect the integrity of the Court by urging Thomas to resign as Warren did with Justice Fortas.
There is a chorus of Democrats calling on Thomas to resign, but the Justice, who has a longstanding hatred of Democrats, will not heed the call of those demands. He will dismiss them as liberals just throwing another “temper tantrum,” fake news.
The difference between the Fortas and Thomas judicial scandals is simple to understand.
In America today, there is greater social tolerance for blatant political corruption, personal political indiscretions, acceptance of bribes and gifts, and a willingness to promote lies and undertake criminal fraud to support political ideology. Political divisiveness now justifies giving political aid to those who violently try to overthrow a legitimate government and support those who provide the nation’s most classified information to our sworn enemies.
Against the backdrop of that political dynamic, it is little wonder why Republicans see Justice Thomas’ corrupt ethical and legal lapses as just “minor” judicial indiscretions not worth throwing a “temper tantrum” about.
But we prefer to believe in a time-honored American idiom that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Liberal Justice Abe Fortas was forced to resign from the Supreme Court for relatively minor financial indiscretions (something that other justices routinely did at the time).
Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas should also be forced to resign from the Supreme Court for serious financial indiscretions (something no other justice has ever done at Thomas’ level). The same strategy that led to the Fortas resignation could be employed against Justice Thomas. Arguably, both Ginni and Justice Thomas have some civil and criminal exposure.