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Justice’s role in Ga. museum raises ethical implications

JURIST IN SPOTLIGHT Legal ethicists have questioned Clarence Thomas’s relationship with a real estate magnate who financed the justice’s pet project. JURIST IN SPOTLIGHT
Legal ethicists have questioned Clarence Thomas’s relationship with a real estate magnate who financed the justice’s pet project.
By Mike McIntire
New York Times / June 19, 2011

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PIN POINT, Ga. — Supreme Court Justice 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 Thomas’s mother as a crab picker.

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 Thomas’s birthplace. The justice asked about plans for the property, and 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,’ ’’ 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. 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 Thomas’s pet project.

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 Thomas joined the court. Since then, Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a library project dedicated to Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass, and reportedly providing $500,000 for Virginia Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group.

In several instances, news reports of Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest and previously unreported act of generosity, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about 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 Thomas’s dealings with 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: Thomas’s role in Crow’s donation for the museum. The code says judges “should not personally participate’’ in raising money for charitable endeavors, out of concern that donors might feel pressured to give or entitled to favorable treatment from the judge.

While the nonprofit Pin Point museum is not intended to honor Thomas, people involved in the project said his role in the community’s history would inevitably be part of it.

Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford University law professor who has called for stricter ethics rules for Supreme Court justices, said Thomas “should not be directly involved in fund-raising activities, no matter how worthy they are or whether he’s being centrally honored by the museum.’’

On the other hand, the restriction on fund-raising is primarily meant to deter judges from using their position to pressure donors, as opposed to relying on “a rich friend’’ like Crow, said Ronald D. Rotunda, who teaches legal ethics at Chapman University in California.

“I don’t think I could say it’s unethical,’’ he said. “It’s just a very peculiar situation.’’

Thomas, through a Supreme Court spokeswoman, declined to respond to a detailed set of questions submitted by The New York Times. Crow also would not comment.

Supreme Court ethics have been under increasing scrutiny, largely because of the activities of Thomas and his wife, whose group, Liberty Central, opposed President Obama’s health care overhaul — an issue that could wind up before the court. Crow’s donation to Liberty Central was reported by Politico.

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