The Delicate Matter of Justice Thomas – In the early days of 2000, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, burdened by financial challenges, found himself at a Georgia beach resort, contemplating his predicament. Thomas, frustrated with his financial situation and recently shouldering the responsibility of raising his grandnephew, was vocal about the need for Congress to give Supreme Court justices a pay raise.
Despite his annual salary of $173,600 (equivalent to over $300,000 today), Thomas was one of the least wealthy members of the court. Seeking solutions to his financial woes, he proposed lifting the ban on justices giving paid speeches. These revelations were unveiled in records obtained by ProPublica, shedding light on a critical period in Thomas’ tenure.
However, Congress didn’t act on Thomas’ suggestions. In the ensuing years, Thomas became the recipient of an unprecedented stream of gifts from wealthy benefactors, including Dallas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow. The nature of these gifts, which ranged from covering living expenses to international vacations on private jets and superyachts, raised questions about their intent and influence.
The reasons behind this generosity remain unclear. While Thomas never explicitly linked the gifts to the prospect of his resignation, individuals like George Priest, who has vacationed with Thomas and Crow, believe that Crow aimed to make Thomas’ life more comfortable due to the justice’s perceived limited salary.
Thomas’ financial struggles were evident in the early ’90s when he took on student loans and borrowed money for major purchases like a Corvette and a suburban home. The situation intensified when he became the legal guardian of his grandnephew in 1998, leading to additional financial strain.
The turning point came in 2000 when Thomas voiced his concerns to Rep. Cliff Stearns about justices resigning if their salaries weren’t raised. Stearns took action, promising to explore a bill for a salary increase. However, neither the ban on speaking fees nor a significant pay raise materialized.
In the subsequent years, Thomas’ financial situation improved significantly. He received a $1.5 million advance for his memoir in 2003, and his wife, Ginni Thomas, earned a six-figure salary at the Heritage Foundation. Gifts and expenses, often undisclosed, further enhanced the Thomases’ lifestyle, courtesy of a select group of wealthy individuals.
Despite the lack of financial relief from Congress, Thomas’ views on judicial salaries shifted by 2019. In a public appearance, he deemed the salary “plenty” and mentioned that he and his wife were doing fine without extravagance.
The intricate interplay of Thomas’ financial struggles, his advocacy for a pay raise, and the subsequent influx of gifts from affluent friends raise questions about the dynamics surrounding Supreme Court justices’ compensation and potential external influences on their decision-making.