NYT's Front-Page Hit on Clarence Thomas's 'Ethically Sensitive Friendship' All Fizzle

New York Times investigative reporter Mike McIntire penned a hit piece on Justice Clarence Thomas for Sunday’s front page, trying to find a controversy in the funding by a friend of Thomas of a cultural museum in the justice’s hometown of Pin Point, Ga.: “The Justice and the Magnate – Friendship and Museum Project Put Focus on Ethics.” But looking past the loaded headline and lacings of ominous word choices like "ethically sensitive," one is hard-pressed to find any hints of actual wrongdoing on the part of Justice Thomas.

Prominently placed, hostile investigations of conservative-friendly groups (that lead nowhere) are a specialty of McIntire’s. His front-page story from March 2011 accused a Tea Party group of pushing the agenda of an Indonesian corporation fighting U.S. tariffs. In September 2010 he went after the group Americans for Job Security, another group with Tea Party ties.

Some excerpts from McIntire’s 2,800-word shrug-worthy piece Sunday:

Clarence Thomas was here promoting his memoir a few years ago when he bumped into Algernon Varn, whose grandfather once ran a seafood cannery that employed Justice Thomas’s mother as a crab picker.

Mr. Varn lived at the old cannery site, a collection of crumbling buildings on a salt marsh just down the road from a sign heralding this remote coastal community outside Savannah as Justice Thomas’s birthplace. The justice asked about plans for the property, and Mr. Varn said he hoped it could be preserved.

“And Clarence said, ‘Well, I’ve got a friend I’m going to put you in touch with,’ ” Mr. Varn recalled, adding that he was later told by others not to identify the friend.

The publicity-shy friend turned out to be Harlan Crow, a Dallas real estate magnate and a major contributor to conservative causes. Mr. Crow stepped in to finance the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the cannery, featuring a museum about the culture and history of Pin Point that has become a pet project of Justice Thomas’s.

The project throws a spotlight on an unusual, and ethically sensitive, friendship that appears to be markedly different from those of other justices on the nation’s highest court.

The two men met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.


In several instances, news reports of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet -- both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges.

Although the Supreme Court is not bound by the code, justices have said they adhere to it. Legal ethicists differed on whether Justice Thomas’s dealings with Mr. Crow pose a problem under the code. But they agreed that one facet of the relationship was both unusual and important in weighing any ethical implications: Justice Thomas’s role in Mr. Crow’s donation for the museum.

So what's the beef? Here's Ann Althouse, a law professor herself: “...you have to comb through it to try to grasp what we're supposed to think Justice Thomas did wrong. I'd just like to highlight the historical preservation that is at the center of the insinuations.” Althouse actually read and quoted from the judicial code of conduct (the Times didn’t) and concluded Thomas had done nothing wrong, since he had not been “soliciting funds.”

Ed Whelan at National Review Online found McIntire’s piece utterly unconvincing (witness his headline -- “Ridiculous NYT Hit Job on Justice Thomas).” Whelan pointed to a double standard in Supreme scrutiny and challenged anyone “to argue that Thomas’s friendship with, and generous favors from, someone who has had no interest in cases before the Supreme Court is somehow more problematic than Ginsburg’s interaction with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.”

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.