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Swamp Creatures

Clarence Thomas Hates the “Hideous Place” That Made Him Rich

The Supreme Court justice claims he can’t stand Washington, but he has the capital city to thank for all of those wealthy friends who have treated him to lavish trips and luxury goods.

Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, at the White House
Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, at the White House for a state dinner in 2019

Supreme Court justices are not above shaping their own public images. Many of them write books, either biographies about their own lives or general treatises about their view on the law. They often speak to law students and fellow judges in public appearances and (occasionally) grant interviews to news outlets.

But none of them can hold a candle to Justice Clarence Thomas, a man who seems to be enamored with his own mythology—and who deeply resents anything that contradicts it or his self-image. Americans saw another glimpse of it last week when Thomas spoke at an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals conference in Mobile Bay, Alabama.

“My wife and I, the last two or three years, just the nastiness and the lies,” Thomas reportedly told Judge Kathryn Mizelle, a former clerk, at the event. “There’s certainly been a lot of negativity in our lives, my wife and I, over the last few years, but we choose not to focus on it.” While telling an anecdote about a friend in his hometown, he briefly mentioned that the story occurred “before they started attacking my friends; I hope I still have some.”

He also denounced the hostility he said he feels in the nation’s capital. “Especially in Washington, people pride themselves in being awful,” he said. “It’s a hideous place, as far as I’m concerned. Because the rest of the country—it’s one of the reasons we like R.V.-ing. You get to be around regular people who don’t pride themselves in doing harmful things merely because they have the capacity to do it.”

These are Thomas’s fullest public remarks on the ethics scandals that have hounded him over the past year, and they underscore how he views the scandals primarily as a matter of public relations than judicial propriety. Though he loves to cast himself as a martyr, the reality of Thomas’s life and career is that many of his grievances are self-inflicted ones. So when he bemoans the “nastiness” of this “hideous place” called Washington, he should consider his own role in making it that way.

Parts of Thomas’s biography are objectively impressive. The court’s senior-most justice was born in rural Georgia in a wooden shack in 1948. He did not live in a house with indoor plumbing until he was 8 years old. The stark racial apartheid of the Jim Crow South, which was still roughly a decade and a half away from demolition, shaped countless aspects of his young life. After first attending seminary and then abandoning it, Thomas was recruited to attend elite colleges in the Northeast, which culminated in his graduation from Yale Law School.

Thomas often frames this journey in deeply ideological terms. When he describes his time on college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, he often mentions how he grew disillusioned with left-wing politics and campus protests in which he once participated. That led him to embrace a strain of Black conservatism that he now exemplifies.

Either way, Thomas’s life story as a young Black man who escaped poverty and segregation to become a Yale-educated lawyer is a potent one. But it also resonates strongly with the justice’s wealthy friends and D.C. allies, who often promote the story of a young Black man who abandoned liberal politics to denounce affirmative action and embrace Reagan Republicanism.

Those allies funded a documentary about him that aired on PBS in 2020. It claimed to “[tell] Thomas’ life story truly and fully, without cover-ups or distortions,” a nod to his perennial frustration with how others describe him. When Amazon briefly removed it from their viewing selections on Amazon Prime the following year, the decision was met with an uproar. The Wall Street Journal bemoaned that Amazon had “canceled” Thomas. Twenty GOP senators, who apparently had nothing better to do, wrote a letter to Amazon complaining about what they saw as the company’s “latest effort to target conservative Americans.” (It is now available again to rent or buy.)

Ever since the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in 2016, GOP lawmakers and columnists have also often grumbled about perceived slights and omissions of Thomas in its exhibits. Thomas himself has commented on the subject, telling a Supreme Court Historical Society audience in 2019 that an exhibit about him—which he hadn’t seen but had been described to him by students—inaccurately described his ideological journey. None of the other justices are defended in such vociferous terms by their allies; one gets the sense that Thomas’s own sentiments help drive it.

Nobody likes being misrepresented or misdescribed, of course. But Thomas appears to be more sensitive to perceived slights and grievances than most. The court’s senior-most justice did not specify the source of the “nastiness” or the “lies” in his remarks last week, but the reference to his wife points toward the public criticism she faced for her role in the coup attempt on January 6, 2021. Ginni Thomas promoted Trump’s rally on social media and expressed her “love” of the participants, some of whom later stormed the Capitol.

The House January 6 committee later uncovered text messages between Ginni and then–White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the two months between election night in 2020 and January 6. In one message shortly after Biden’s victory became mathematically certain, she told Meadows that “the majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History.”

In perhaps the most serious episode, Ginni also pressured Republican state lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin to overturn the election results in those states and award Biden’s electoral votes to Trump. “Please stand strong in the face of media and political pressure,” the emails read. “Please reflect on the awesome authority granted to you by our Constitution. And then please take action to ensure that a clean slate of Electors is chosen for our state.”

All of this comes from Ginni’s own words and writings; no embellishment or exaggeration is needed. In theory, her at least peripheral role in a coup attempt should raise judicial ethics concerns for Thomas, whose job requires him to hear multiple cases involving the events of January 6. But it apparently hasn’t. Thomas took part in oral arguments in every January 6–related case this term, including the Trump v. Anderson decision that gutted the Fourteenth Amendment’s disqualification clause.

It’s also possible that Thomas is referring to reporting on other ethical problems over the years. Reporting by ProPublica (which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize) and other news outlets last year uncovered how Thomas had taken dozens of lavish vacations on the dime of various conservative billionaires. Foremost among them was Harlan Crow, a GOP megadonor who has enjoyed a quarter-century friendship with Thomas that began shortly after he joined the court.

Most Americans have people they consider to be close friends—the kind that help you move out of your apartment, feed your cats for you if you have to go out of town, bring precooked meals over when you have a baby. Very few Americans have friends as good as Crow. In addition to hosting luxury junkets for the justice, Crow also helped fund the PBS documentary four years ago, purchased Thomas’s mother’s house to convert into a museum, gifted him paintings and a Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass, paid for boarding-school tuition for Thomas’s adopted son, and sought to open a different museum in Thomas’s hometown.

Crow is far from Thomas’s only wealthy friend. Part of the justice’s mythology is his off-season love of traveling around the country in a motor home. “It’s away from the sort of—the meanness that you see in Washington, and you get here with just the regular folks, and it’s so pleasant,” he told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft in 2007, striking the same notes 16 years ago as he did last week.

While Thomas casts it as part of his everyman image, the reality is somewhat less romantic. Health care executive Tony Welters privately loaned him $267,000 at 7.5 percent interest to purchase the motor home in 1999. According to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Welters forgave the loan nine years later after Thomas had made interest-only payments on it. While Welters is described as a longtime friend by Thomas’s allies, the financial exchanges in that friendship appear to go beyond simply splitting expensive dinner bills on Venmo.

Thomas often tries to maintain a public image that he is removed from Washington. His remarks last week followed that same theme. Thomas told the crowd that he had been “thinking about getting out of D.C.” and that he had “no interest in public life” prior to being appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1990, where he served for less than two years before being appointed to the Supreme Court.

“I wound up in this job,” he told the audience, as if he had arrived at the Supreme Court by accident. “And this is, we pray, to do whatever it was that God wanted me to do, what I was being called to do. But being in public life is not something I would have chosen to do.”

There are Supreme Court justices who have actually rejected that way of life. Former Justice David Souter, a fellow George H.W. Bush appointee, once referred to the start of each new term as a “sort of annual intellectual lobotomy.” He stepped down from the court in 2009 in part because of his frustration with the politics that his job entailed. Souter then returned to his home state of New Hampshire, where he occasionally hears cases on the much quieter First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Thomas, on the other hand, shows no real interest in abandoning Washington or the levers of power. Obviously he remains in his influential seat as one of the nine people who decides what the Constitution means. His wife is also a prominent conservative political activist who works on behalf of a variety of right-wing organizations. And Thomas himself has a powerful network of his own: the extensive constellation of former clerks who now occupy prominent jobs in the conservative legal movement.

Roughly a dozen former Thomas clerks currently serve as federal judges, including influential Fifth Circuit Judge James Ho and D.C. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao. Thomas swore the former into office in Harlan Crow’s personal library; he reportedly lobbied Republican lawmakers to confirm the latter by assuring them of her conservative bona fides. Others became prominent right-wing litigators: William Consovoy represented former President Donald Trump in multiple lawsuits before his death last year, and John Eastman provided the legal advice that led to the deadly events on January 6.

The Atlantic’s Emma Green noted in 2019 that this vast network of clerks may be one of Thomas’s most lasting legacies: At that point, roughly one-fifth of all people who had ever clerked for him had served in the Trump administration or been nominated to a federal judgeship. It is telling that when Ginni Thomas’s involvement in January 6 first became public, she apologized not to the American people but to the close-knit fraternity of former Thomas clerks for having “likely imposed on you my lifetime passions.”

Ginni reportedly had used the clerks’ email listserv to share her pro-Trump views during and after the election, angering some of them. “My passions and beliefs are likely shared with the bulk of you, but certainly not all,” she wrote. “And sometimes the smallest matters can divide loved ones for too long. Let’s pledge to not let politics divide THIS family, and learn to speak more gently and knowingly across the divide.”

The Thomases do not eschew public life; they relish it. Thomas is not a reluctant participant in D.C. politics; he enjoys being the hub around which it revolves. Thomas’s votes in cases on voting rights, partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance laws, and anti-corruption cases have helped make American politics meaner, crueler, and more partisan over the past three decades. And along the way, his billionaire patrons have allowed him to enjoy a lifestyle far beyond what he could otherwise afford on a justice’s salary. This is not as heartwarming or inspiring as the mythology that Thomas prefers—and that is exactly why he prefers it.