In early January 2000, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was at a five-star beach resort in Sea Island, Georgia, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
After almost a decade on the court, Thomas had grown frustrated with his financial situation, according to friends. He had recently started raising his young grandnephew, and Thomas’ wife was soliciting advice on how to handle the new expenses. The month before, the justice had borrowed $267,000 from a friend to buy a high-end RV.
At the resort, Thomas gave a speech at an off-the-record conservative conference. He found himself seated next to a Republican member of Congress on the flight home. The two men talked, and the lawmaker left the conversation worried that Thomas might resign.
Congress should give Supreme Court justices a pay raise, Thomas told him. If lawmakers didn’t act, “one or more justices will leave soon” — maybe in the next year.
At the time, Thomas’ salary was $173,600, equivalent to over $300,000 today. But he was one of the least wealthy members of the court, and on multiple occasions in that period, he pushed for ways to make more money. In other private conversations, Thomas repeatedly talked about removing a ban on justices giving paid speeches.
Thomas’ efforts were described in records from the time obtained by ProPublica, including a confidential memo to Chief Justice William Rehnquist from a top judiciary official seeking guidance on what he termed a “delicate matter.”
The documents, as well as interviews, offer insight into how Thomas was talking about his finances in a crucial period in his tenure, just as he was developing his relationships with a set of wealthy benefactors. [Continue reading…]