Were US Elections Sold to Corporations So Clarence Thomas Could Reward His Friends?

When Clarence Thomas took his seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, things were not looking good for him. Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas' at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, came forward with explosive allegations of sexual harassment against the judge, and she was a credible witness. Thomas needed more than a Hail Mary to survive his confirmation hearing; he needed a major assist.

Enter Floyd Brown and L. Brent Bozell, Republican operatives with a history of making brutal media attacks on opponents; Brown was responsible for the racially charged “Willie Horton” ad run during George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in which Dukakis was made to look like a champion of a brutal murderer and rapist.

The two collaborated on the making and distribution of a television ad headlined, “Who Will Judge the Judge?” that targeted three liberal members of the Judiciary Committee whose lives were haunted by prior scandals of their own: Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Alan Cranston, D-Calif. and Joseph Biden, D-Del. Time magazine estimated that the ad cost $100,000 to air and reaped about $1 million worth of free publicity. Although Biden had a raft of witnesses available who would have corroborated Hill's characterization of Thomas, Biden chose not to call them, as the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin noted this summer in a comprehensive profile of Thomas and his wife, Virginia (Ginni) Lamp Thomas. The organizations sponsoring the ad were Bozell's Conservative Victory Committee, and Brown's group, called Citizens United.

If that name sounds familiar to you, it is because it is the title of a case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court — a case whose outcome is commonly described as having opened the floodgates of corporate money into the nation's election system. Citizens United was the plaintiff, challenging a decision by the Federal Election Commission. Justice Clarence Thomas cast his vote for Citizens United, truly a deciding vote in that 5-4 decision.

ProtectOurElections.org, a coalition of progressive groups, asserts on its Web site that Thomas was required to recuse himself from the Citizens United case because, the group contends, the ad amounted to an “in-kind” donation to his quest for a seat on the Supreme Court. More recently, a related Web site, OccupyForAccountability.org, has joined that call. (ProtectOurElections' counsel is Kevin Zeese, an organizer of the Occupy DC movement, whose October 15 sit-in on the Supreme Court steps resulted in 19 arrests.)

The ethical problems posed by Thomas' involvement in the Citizens United case hardly mark the end of questionable behavior by Thomas and his wife, Ginni. (See my June article, “8 Reasons Why Clarence Thomas Must Step Down.”) There's his failure to disclose his wife's income for 20 years, as required by federal law, which led Common Cause and 20 Democratic members of Congress to call for an investigation under the Ethics in Government Act. The Justice Integrity Project also supports that call. Recent news reports suggest that the income Thomas neglected to report may amount to as much as $1.6 million.

Then there's his all-expenses-paid visits and speech-making to the biannual gatherings hosted by the Koch brothers at swanky resorts. Common Cause contends that Thomas should have recused himself from the Citizens United case, since the Koch brothers, prodigious political donors, stood to gain substantially in political influence from the decision as it was rendered.

Thomas also has enjoyed a relationship with a deep-pocketed donor, Harlan Crow, who, Politico reported, bankrolled Ginni Thomas' short-lived Tea Party organization, Liberty Central, which was criticized as being little more than a slush fund for Mrs. Thomas' travel expenses as she toured the country, rallying opposition to the 2010 health-care reform law, which is likely to come before the Supreme Court. (Liberty Central, had it survived the scandal caused by a New York Times exposé, would have stood to gain by the Citizens United ruling, as would Ginni Thomas' former employers, the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.) Crow also put up the money for a library dedicated to Thomas and bankrolled the restoration of an historic cannery that once employed Thomas' mother.

As AlterNet reported, Ginni Thomas' Liberty Central also counted among its partners two far-right groups, Gun Owners of America and the Missouri Sovereignty Project, that have advocated making war on the U.S. government.

I wrote this in June, and it's even more true today. At a time when Americans' faith in their institutions of governance is at record lows, the continuing presence of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court undermines the very underpinnings of democracy. It's time for him to go.