Why Clarence Thomas Started Accepting Gifts From Billionaires?

Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas was in so much debt two decades ago that he tried to get Supreme Court justice salaries raised across the board. Within months, Republican billionaires began giving him extravagant gifts.

Clarence Thomas spoke at a conservative conference in January 2000, according to a new ProPublica report. In what we now know to be classic Thomas style, he did not report that trip on his financial disclosure forms.

On the way home, he sat next to Republican Representative Cliff Stearns. During the flight, Thomas complained bitterly that his salary—then $173,600—was insufficient. He even hinted that multiple justices could resign in the next year if they weren’t given a pay raise.

What Clarence Thomas is saying?

Clarence Thomas’s words sparked a rush of attempts on Capitol Hill to significantly raise the justices’ salaries or at least ensure their pay kept pace with inflation. Specifically, Republicans wanted to make sure that Thomas and his fellow staunch conservative Antonin Scalia did not leave the bench.

Thomas also petitioned then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist to lift a ban on justices giving paid speeches. Ultimately, the attempts to give justices more money all failed. But soon after, a group of Republican billionaire megadonors began lavishing Thomas and his family with a steady stream of gifts.

It is still unclear what exactly prompted the gift-giving, or if it was directly tied to Thomas’s money complaints. But certainly, many of those gifts have alleviated the justice’s financial concerns.

One of those generous souls is billionaire Harlan Crow, who has been friends with Thomas for more than two decades. In that time, Crow—a Nazi memorabilia collector—has repeatedly lavished Thomas with expensive gifts. These include island-hopping yacht vacations, private school tuition for Thomas’s nephew, and buying and renovating a Thomas family property, where Thomas’s mother still lives.

Crow has also regularly brought Thomas as his guest to the Bohemian Grove, which ProPublica has previously described as a “secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California” that attracts major corporate and political players.

By 2003, Thomas’s wife, Ginni, had begun working at the Heritage Foundation and was making a salary in the low six figures. The Heritage Foundation is part of the Koch brothers’ network. By at least 2010, Clarence Thomas began secretly participating in Koch donor network events, which put him in touch with wealthy and influential conservatives.

Looking at Thomas’s finances, though, it would seem that keeping pace with inflation wasn’t the main issue. When he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991, he still had student loans from law school. But during the early 1990s, he made at least two big purchases: a Corvette and a house in Virginia with five acres of land. Thomas and his wife bought the house for $522,000 in 1992. They were able to pay $8,000 out of pocket and had to borrow the rest, according to property records.

The couple borrowed huge sums of money throughout the next decade, including a consumer loan of $50,000 and a $100,000 line of credit on their house. In 1998, Thomas became his grandnephew’s legal guardian and began sending him to pricey private schools.

The month before Clarence Thomas complained about his salary to Stearns, he had borrowed $267,000 from a friend to buy a luxury R.V. That purchase partially paid off, though: In 2001, Clarence Thomas took his R.V. to get serviced outside Tampa. While there, he met Earl Dixon, the owner of a Florida pest control company, who ended up giving Thomas $5,000 for his grandnephew’s tuition.

By 2019, Clarence Thomas began singing a decidedly different tune. Justices’ pay was by then keeping up with inflation, but it hadn’t increased significantly. But in June, when asked about the court’s salaries, Thomas said, “Oh goodness, I think it’s plenty.”

“My wife and I are doing fine. We don’t live extravagantly, but we are fine.”

A few weeks later, Crow took the Thomases on a yacht vacation.

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