The Volokh Conspiracy

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Another Judicial Ethics Story About Justice Thomas Falls Apart

Mark Paoletta explains the details of Harlan Crow's purchase of the Thomas childhood home.


The never-ending reporting on Supreme Court ethics has backfired. The goal was to demonstrate that certain Supreme Court Justices are behaving unethically. But in turn, each of these stories unraveled. The Justices either followed the rules, or made a good-faith error that was promptly corrected. If the entire media apparatus is unable to unearth actual problems, then we should take comfort: the Justices take their ethical obligations quite seriously.

The latest story to fall apart concerns Justice Thomas's childhood home in Georgia, which was purchased by Harlan Crow. Mark Paoletta, who has many close ties to the Thomases, explains the details of that land transaction:

In 2014, Crow visited Thomas's boyhood home, where the justice's mother, Leola Williams, was living. The neighborhood was unsafe, with crack houses nearby, and drug dealers and derelicts roaming the street. Crow asked Thomas what would happen to this home when his mother passed, and Justice Thomas replied that he would bulldoze it. Crow thought this was a horrible idea — this was the home where Thomas came to live with his grandparents in 1955, when he was seven. His life was forever changed by his being raised by his grandparents, and Crow did not want this home lost to history.

When Crow first expressed interest in buying the home, he did not know that Justice Thomas had an ownership interest in it — he thought it was just his mother's home. Crow's team did their due diligence and came up with a market price of $133,000 for the home and two vacant lots on the same street. The vacant lots were previously owned by Thomas's grandfather and later inherited by Thomas, his mother, and the estate of his deceased brother. (This sale did not include the farmhouse in Liberty County, Ga., in which Justice Thomas still has a one-third interest.)

As part of the contract, Crow granted a lifetime-occupancy agreement to Thomas' mother, then 85, just as he had done with the Varns several years earlier. This was no gift, as the lifetime-occupancy agreement was part of the market-price calculation. This arrangement allowed Crow to begin the work to preserve the property immediately while allowing Mrs. Williams, now 94, to continue to live there. Crow also bought several other homes and lots on this street, and this small area has since been transformed into a beautiful, vibrant, and safe street.

In the years preceding this transaction, Justice Thomas and his wife put significant sums of money into making improvements to his mother's house. Given these costs, their one-third share of its sale price amounted to a capital loss on the property. Because of that, Justice Thomas did not believe that the sale of his mother's home was a reportable transaction. He never considered this inherited home as an "investment or trust," which is the language that appears on the financial-disclosure form where a filer must report any transaction over $1,000. Now that this has been brought to his attention, Justice Thomas is expected to amend his previous financial-disclosure form to reflect this sale. Amendments are not uncommon.

That's it. Thomas made a good-faith error, and will file an amendment. Other Justices have taken similar steps.

Over the years, several justices have amended their filings. For example, in 2021, Justice Sotomayor amended her 2016 financial-disclosure form to add six trips that had been paid for by a third party. She had forgotten about them, and when she realized the omission, she amended her forms. Nobody questioned her integrity. Justice Jackson hadn't disclosed her husband's medical-malpractice-consulting fees for years, nor the income she received from teaching. She noted this oversight on the disclosure form she filled out for her Supreme Court nomination. Again, nobody questioned her integrity. Why is Justice Thomas being held to a different standard?

Paoletta explains the goal of these attacks:

The latest attacks on Justice Thomas have nothing to do with ethics. Instead, the attacks are about undermining the Supreme Court now that it no longer acts as a super-legislature for implementing the Left's progressive policies. Other justices have also suffered baseless attacks on their ethics and character. The Left is weaponizing financial disclosures to smear conservative justices. It's important for defenders of the Court to call this out for what it is. Meanwhile, Justice Thomas and his colleagues can hopefully continue to focus on their work: issuing legal opinions that are faithful to the Constitution.

I would also highlight several tweets from Paoletta. For example, RBG donated a signed copy of her VMI decision to an National Organization of Women auction:

And RBG accepted an award from the Woman's National Democratic Club:

Again, I hope reporters push the pause button on these breathless reports.