Clarence Thomas recuses himself from John Eastman appeal amid ethics criticism

Conservative justice has faced scrutiny for not reporting lavish gifts from right-wing groups, figures with interests before his court

John Bowden
Washington DC
Monday 02 October 2023 15:57 EDT
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Supreme Court Judtice Clarence Thomas criticised for conflict of interest

The Supreme Court’s most controversial member on Monday recused himself from a decision on whether or not the court would hear an appeal from John Eastman, a former lawyer to Donald Trump now facing criminal indictment.

Mr Eastman, who faces several different legal battles all stemming in some way from his work for Mr Trump, had hoped the Supreme Court would overturn a decision by a judge in a lower court that forced him to hand over communications to the January 6 committee. The bipartisan panel of House lawmakers investigated the attack on the US Capitol throughout 2022, and made public messages that were obtained from Mr Eastman and other close allies of Donald Trump.

The former Trump campaign attorney had sought that ruling overturned anyway, despite his emails already having been published, because he argued that the ruling created a “stigma” against him and the former president. The court did not entertain that argument, denying his writ of certiorari.

Clarence Thomas was the only justice to abstain from ruling on the writ; Mr Eastman formerly served as his law clerk.

Mr Thomas has been under scrutiny for months over unreported gifts and other connections to right-wing billionaires and their extended webs of conservative groups, many of whom have past or present business before the US Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court does not have a formal code of ethics, and the justices have drawn increased criticism in recent years for relationships that many have said represent plain conflicts of interest.

Those accusations exploded after the attack on the nation’s capital on January 6. An investigation that followed in the months after the attack, led by House lawmakers, found that Mr Thomas’s wife Ginni Thomas was involved in an extensive effort in support of the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. That effort by the Trump campaign has now been described by the Department of Justice as a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States of a duly elected president. Ms Thomas has not been charged with any crime, but was found to have lobbied Republican lawmakers across the country to join the scheme.

Her husband’s past refusal to recuse himself from cases related to the attack have infuriated Democrats and ethics groups who have argued that Mr Thomas is personally connected to any such matter.

A push by Democrats in the Senate to call on the Court to create and enforce a code of ethics has largely gone nowhere.

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