In 2001, a conservative, corporate-aligned think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) gave Justice Clarence Thomas the gift of a $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln. At the ceremony presenting Thomas with this very expensive gift, AEI president Christopher DeMuth explained that the bust was “cast in 1914 by the great neo-classical sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman.” Watch it:
AEI, however, is not simply in the business of giving luxurious gifts to Supreme Court justices — it is also in the business of litigating before the United States Supreme Court. ThinkProgress uncovered three briefs that AEI filed in Thomas’ Court after Thomas received their $15,000 gift. Thomas recused from none of these three cases, and he either voted in favor of the result AEI favored or took a stance that was even further to the right in each case:
- Riley v. Kennedy: AEI filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court decision preventing a change in Alabama’s voting law from going into effect. Justice Thomas did not recuse, and he joined the Supreme Court’s decision reversing the lower court.
- Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1: AEI filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court decisionupholding a local school district’s desegregation plan. Thomas joined the majority opinion reversing the lower court’s decision, and he filed a lengthy concurrence defending that result.
- Whitman v. American Trucking Association: AEI joined a brief asking the Supreme Court to allow the EPA to consider the costs of implementing new air quality standards before it issued them. Thomas’ concurring opinion went much further than AEI asked him to go, suggesting that the law authorizing EPA to issue these standards is unconstitutional.
Although there is no evidence that AEI gave Thomas the $15,000 gift specifically to buy his vote in a particular case, Thomas’ decision to sit on cases where his benefactor has a demonstrated interest creates a very serious appearance of impropriety. No one would trust a judge to hear their case if they learned that someone on the other side of the case had given that judge a rare and expensive gift.