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That’s what friends are for

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Pro Publica has yet another story on Clarence Thomas’s sleazy eagerness to accept party favors from politically active billionaires — in this case the Koch brothers:

On Jan. 25, 2018, dozens of private jets descended on Palm Springs International Airport. Some of the richest people in the country were arriving for the annual winter donor summit of the Koch network, the political organization founded by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch. A long weekend of strategizing, relaxation in the California sun and high-dollar fundraising lay ahead.

Just after 6 p.m., a Gulfstream G200 jet touched down on the tarmac. One of the Koch network’s most powerful allies was on board: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

During the summit, the justice went to a private dinner for the network’s donors. Thomas has attended Koch donor events at least twice over the years, according to interviews with three former network employees and one major donor. The justice was brought in to speak, staffers said, in the hopes that such access would encourage donors to continue giving.

That puts Thomas in the extraordinary position of having served as a fundraising draw for a network that has brought cases before the Supreme Court, including one of the most closely watched of the upcoming term.

Thomas never reported the 2018 flight to Palm Springs on his annual financial disclosure form, an apparent violation of federal law requiring justices to report most gifts. A Koch network spokesperson said the network did not pay for the private jet. Since Thomas didn’t disclose it, it’s not clear who did pay.

Thomas’ involvement in the events is part of a yearslong, personal relationship with the Koch brothers that has remained almost entirely out of public view. It developed over years of trips to the Bohemian Grove, a secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California. Thomas has been a regular at the Grove for two decades, where he stayed in a small camp with real estate billionaire Harlan Crow and the Kochs, according to records and people who’ve spent time with him there.

A spokesperson for the Koch network, formally known as Stand Together, did not answer detailed questions about his role at the Palm Springs events but said, “Thomas wasn’t present for fundraising conversations.”

Earlier this week, Andrew Gelman had fun with Even Liberal Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig’s bizarre rationalizations for this kind of wildly improper hobnobbing:

Lessig’s involvement seems odd at first because in 2011 he published a book entitled, “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It.” You’d think that if Lessig believes that money corrupts Congress, he’d think that it would corrupt the court system.

Actually, though, no! Check out this recent post [updated link here] from Lessig. On one hand, I think it’s kinda cool that a bigshot like Lessig is spending his time blogging—he’s just like me! No regular NYT or Fox News gig or whatever so he puts his thoughts out there in the ether, for all to read!—; on the other hand, I’m not so happy with what Lessig has to say:

Yet most of the attacks on Justice Thomas go beyond the failure to report some of his gifts. Most are attacking (1) that he took these or any gifts at all, or (2) that he took them from someone on the Right, or (3) that he took them from someone who is wealthy.

Point (3) seems odd . . . Point (2) is odd as well . . . Which leaves point (1), the point about this reporting that is most odd to me: One might well believe that Justices should not take gifts like this at all — that they should never visit others, or stay with others, that their vacations should be on their own dime. . . .

Whaaaa? So the two alternatives for a federal judge are: (a) take zillions of dollars in undeclared gifts from a political donor, or (b) “never visit others, or stay with others”? That’s just weird. I don’t think anything in the law prohibits judges from visiting people!

I guess that’s something they teach in law school, to introduce ridiculous slippery-slope arguments?

Yes, that is something they teach in law school, though generally not as crudely as in the case of Lessig’s “argument” for why it’s A-OK for a SCOTUS justice to be a billionaire’s bauble.

But this isn’t the half of it, as Gelman points out that Lessig has gotten himself into a position where he’s now advocating that what he himself calls “blood money” is fine, as long as it remains secret:

Anyway, Lessig’s statements leapt out at me: he doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with corruption at all! His problem is with open corruption. Just take your “blood money” (his term) but don’t let anyone know about it. He literally said, “Were I king, I would ban non-anonymous gifts of type 3 [“money from people convicted of a crime”] or type 4 [“blood money”].”

What the hell? If he were king, he presumably would have the ability to ban all blood money, right? But, no, he wouldn’t go that far! He’d only ban “non-anonymous” blood money. All right, then.

I don’t really understand Lessig’s position, but I guess he’s consistent. Payoffs are ok but only if they’re secret. This also is consistent with him being so bothered by perceptions. If the payoff is secret, there’s no perception. No perception, no problem.

There’s a bunch of other fun stuff in the Gelman post, which you should go read.

As for Thomas, this increasingly absurd situation is just illustrative of the accelerating pace at which the anti-democratic features of the American constitutional system are becoming more and more self-evident. Lifetime tenure for unelected judges, appointed by a radically unrepresentative Senate, after being nominated by a president who lost the election — in the sense of the definition of losing usually employed in democratic nations, i.e., getting less votes than your opponent — mixes especially poorly with practically open New Gilded Age bribery of the Koch persuasion.

There are mornings when I sincerely wonder how much longer this train can stay on the track, or even if it should.

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