U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas must think it's nobody's business how his wife earns her money. But he is wrong. And his omission of his wife's substantial salary from federal financial disclosures between 2003 and 2009 can be read no other way than a purposeful flouting of the law.
According to the IRS, Virginia Thomas earned more than $120,000 per year from 2003 to 2007 from the conservative Heritage Foundation. In recent years, she was the CEO of Liberty Central, a conservative advocacy organization that she founded, reportedly, with an unknown salary.
The liberal group Common Cause discovered the discrepancy when it was investigating possible conflicts of interest for Supreme Court justices who ruled on a campaign finance case that opened the door to corporate funding of political advocacy. Responding to public pressure, Thomas filed a seven-page corrected financial disclosure document Monday and claimed the omissions were the result of a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions." The excuse from a justice on the nation's highest court sounded more convenient than truthful.
As Common Cause noted, Thomas is "called upon daily to understand and interpret the most complicated legal issues of our day." It is implausible that he "misunderstood simple directions of a federal disclosure form."
Thomas has expressed opposition to public disclosure in the past. He is the single justice who has argued that disclosure requirements for large political donations violate the Constitution. The disclosure omissions may be a statement of personal principles.
Regardless of Thomas' reasons, there is an important public purpose for financial disclosure laws. They allow litigants before the court to assess whether a justice has a conflict of interest that should disqualify him or her from judgment of a particular case.
The 1978 Ethics in Government Act requires federal officials to disclose income from spouses. When federal judges ignore the law, the act directs the Judicial Conference to refer those matters to the attorney general. This seems like a clear case. Despite Thomas' efforts to correct the record, the matter should be pursued.