Did Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas commit serious ethical violations to the point where the court needs a set of standards, and Thomas should be ousted? Or are his critics in the media and politics motivated by political biases more than the ethical issues themselves?
In April 2023, reports emerged that Thomas had received gifts from GOP donor Harlan Crow and did not disclose some of them, including multiple trips and payments for Thomas’s great-nephew's tuition. Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife, has also received money from The Judicial Education Project at the request of conservative legal activist Leonard Leo in 2012.
These revelations have led to controversy regarding whether Thomas has committed ethical violations and what the ramifications should be. Outlets on the left have reported more on the details of the ethical questions and the ramifications, while outlets on the right have reported on those who have come to Thomas's defense and implied that Democrats may have ulterior motives in investigating Thomas.
- Highlighted the possibility of Thomas doing something unethical
Reported on criticisms of Thomas by political figures
- Framed Democrats as jumping to conclusions that fit their narrative
Reported on defenses of Thomas by other political figures
Lean Right- and Right-rated sources covered Republicans who have come to the defense of Thomas and questioned whether he was required to disclose the gifts.
For example, The Washington Times (Lean Right) reported on the Senate Democrats’ request for information from Harlan Crow. It mentioned criticism of Thomas from ProPublica (Lean Left), The Washington Post (Lean Left), and The New York Times (Lean Left), before specifying, “The high court currently doesn’t have a mandatory code of ethics, even though lower court judges are expected to avoid impropriety or do business with anyone who may come before the bench.”
The article ended with a quote from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who argued that this is an attempt from the Democrats to destroy Thomas’s reputation. Through the inclusion of these details, the Washington Times frames the situation as an open question as to whether Justice Thomas did anything wrong, compared to some outlets on the left who wrote as if it’s not in question.
On the right, outlets also extensively covered former Vice President Mike Pence’s defense of Thomas, as well as that of Mike Paoletta, who served as chief counsel to Mike Pence, demonstrating story choice bias.
Left- and Lean Left-rated outlets often covered the story with an implication that the gifts should be investigated and the behaviors of justices should be held to a higher standard.
CNN (Lean Left) featured an interview with Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-SC) about the story. Nearly half of the article was about the challenge to the Senate Judiciary committee in getting the votes to secure a subpoena of Thomas, if they decide to pursue that, due to the absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Putting so much emphasis on potential roadblocks to a subpoena while omitting other possibilities implies that a subpoena is an imminent expectation. This is an example of mind-reading.
Mediaite (Lean Left) ran an article on an MSNBC (Left bias) interview with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in which he said the donations made to Ginni Thomas may constitute tax violations and fraud. The article only provides Whitehouse’s perspective, which reinforces the implication that Justice Thomas has done something wrong with certainty.
Other outlets focused more on recapping the details of Justice Thomas’s transitions. The Washington Post (Lean Left) provided “A brief timeline of Clarence Thomas’s ethics questions.” However, the Washington Post includes some bias by presenting analysis as fact, writing, “Despite the law making pretty clear that such real estate sales must be disclosed, Thomas doesn’t do so.” This analysis implies that Thomas has violated ethics rules.
Both the left and right sides of the media have slanted this story — one implying a Democratic witch hunt to ruin the reputation of a conservative justice, the other implying the justice is corrupt by focusing much more on his detractors than on any contrary perspectives.
Through reading both perspectives in AllSides Balanced News, you can come to your own conclusions about the significance of Thomas’s undisclosed donations.
Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging and Bias Assistant at AllSides. She has a Center bias.