Time for Supreme Court Term Limits

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A pair of new investigative reports about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are a testament to the need for better guard rails against moneyed influence.

The first bombshell story from ProPublica highlighted how a billionaire named Harlan Crow befriended Thomas after he became a Supreme Court justice and treated him (and often his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas) to luxurious vacations almost every year. Thomas didn’t disclose those trips.

ProPublica followed that up with another story that Crow had actually purchased property from Thomas. Thomas didn’t disclose this either. Stranger still, Thomas’s mother has continued living there while the billionaire has been making expensive renovations.

Thomas broke the law by failing to disclose his financial transactions with Crow. Every American should read the ProPublica reports on how one of the nine Supreme Court justices, whose jurisdiction covers the entire nation, appears to be in the pocket of a billionaire.

The cozy relationship between Crow and Thomas has borne fruit for wealthy elites: the justice has routinely sided with moneyed interests and their influence on policymaking.

Thomas was already under scrutiny for the political and financial activities of his wife.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Ginni Thomas founded a “Tea Party” nonprofit called Liberty Central, a move the New York Times described as “the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation’s highest court.”

She later became a lobbyist and led a small, secretive organization called Liberty Consulting. In 2011, Politico reported that she touted “her ‘experience and connections’ to help clients ‘with governmental affairs efforts.’”

Ginni Thomas again made headlines last year for having pressured former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to try to overturn the 2020 election results. More recently, the Washington Post published an investigation into anonymous donations totaling $600,000 made to another organization Ginni Thomas leads that stokes the right’s vicious culture wars.

Although the Thomases offer arguably the most explicit examples of corruptive influence on the Supreme Court, they are not alone.

In December 2022, the New York Times revealed that an innocently named charity called the Supreme Court Historical Society has “become a vehicle for those seeking access to nine of the most reclusive and powerful people in the nation.” The organization has raised millions of dollars from secret donors, in large part from “corporations, special interest groups, or lawyers and firms that argued cases before the court.”

Justices attend the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner, offering a tantalizing chance for individual attendees to influence them — as the leader of an anti-abortion group apparently took advantage of.

It’s no wonder there is growing public disapproval of a body whose decisions impact nearly every aspect of our lives.

Justices have lifetime tenure — ostensibly to protect them from partisan pressures. But that only works if there are watertight regulations for preventing corruption — and actual consequences for violating them.

After Watergate, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) to ensure that officials like Supreme Court justices were independent of moneyed interests. Thomas appears to have violated the EIGA, but there is no direct mechanism to hold him accountable short of Congress impeaching him — a move that has no precedent in the last 200 years.

No other democratically run nation on the planet gives its highest court justices lifetime tenure. Now legal experts are recommending term limits.

Democratic senators have introduced the TERM Act, which would introduce 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices. A new justice would replace one who was termed out every two years, and presidents would have two opportunities during each four-year tenure to appoint new justices.

The U.S. should join the rest of the world’s democratic nations in upholding an impartial judiciary — it might even save billionaires like Harlan Crow some money.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates.