The questionable ethics standard of Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas declared Monday that he “inadvertently omitted” his wife’s income from his disclosure forms for 1989-2009; he failed to report Virginia “Ginni” Thomas’s earnings because of a “misunderstanding of the filing instructions,” the justice explained.
To his credit, the justice rectified the error just hours after Common Cause pointed it out. He has now filed amended forms to reflect his wife’s employment in the Labor Department during the first Bush administration, on Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s and at the Heritage Foundation from 1998-2007.

As federal forms go, the annual disclosure required of judges is pretty simple. Compared to the IRS’s Form 1040, or the FAFSA form millions of us fill out to apply for college aid, for example, it’s a snap.
 The disclosure form demands only that each judge reveal “the source of items of earned income earned by a spouse.” There is no requirement for disclosure of the spouse’s actual income or for the identity of anyone who paid the spouse less than $1,000.

The form has an important purpose. The annual disclosures are the only practical mechanism available to the public or to litigants with cases before the high court for monitoring potential conflicts of interest by the justices. If a justice’s husband or wife is drawing substantial income from someone with a pending case, other parties to the case should have an opportunity to seek the justice’s recusal.

Justice Thomas’ colleagues on the Supreme Court have had no trouble with the form; they routinely report spousal income. And both Justice Thomas and his colleagues have staffs of bright young lawyers – who also help them research and analyze far more complex legal and Constitutional issues – to help make sure they get it right.

All this makes Justice Thomas’ mistake more puzzling and more troubling. Even accepting the justice’s explanation, an act that requires a considerable leap of faith, we’re left with the disturbing impression that he must not have taken the ethics act very seriously. And we’re left to wonder if there are other laws about which he’s similarly cavalier.


Bob Edgar is the president and CEO of Common Cause.

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