Clarence Thomas Lobbied for Supreme Court Pay Raise: Report

clarence thomas money

Justice Clarence Thomas once told a member of Congress that “one or more justices will leave [the court] soon” if lawmakers did not raise their salaries, ProPublica reports. At the time, Thomas was taking on large amounts of debt to finance his lifestyle, and would soon begin cultivating financially beneficial — and ethically dubious — relationships with some of the nation’s most prominent wealthy conservatives. 

According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Thomas spoke to Republican Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns while on a return flight from a conservative conference in Sea Island, Georgia, in January 2000. In a letter to Thomas written after their in-flight conversation, Rep. Stearns had offered to “look into a bill to raise the salaries of the Supreme Court.” The conversation was relayed to then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in a confidential memo authored by court administrator L. Ralph Mecham. 

The memo stated that aside from Thomas’ complaints about his salary, he had also recently discussed lifting the court’s ban on justices giving paid speeches with appellate Judge David Hansen. Mecham raised concerns that Stearns’ plans to introduce a bill that would “delink Supreme Court justices’ pay from the pay of all other judges as well as from Congress and the Cabinet” would foment political backlash against the court.

“Within the judiciary, that could run the risk of looking like a dog in the manger approach. To Congress, it could be seen as another judiciary effort at delinkage from congressional pay which even our best friends have refused to do,” Mecham wrote. 

While Stearns’ attempt to drastically change the compensation structure for Supreme Court justices ultimately fizzled out, Thomas’ desire for the trappings of wealth would remain undeterred. In 2000, Thomas was struggling to finance his lavish tastes on his salary of $173,600 (about $300,000 today). Weeks before his conversation with Stearns, Thomas had borrowed $267,230 from his wealthy friend, Anthony Welters, to finance the purchase of a luxury RV. The loan, a large portion of which was forgiven by Welters, was an early sign of what would become a pattern of sweetheart financial deals between Thomas and wealthy benefactors, many of which were never disclosed to ethics regulators. 


In April, ProPublica reported on Thomas’ relationship with billionaire Harlan Crow, a real estate mogul who had gifted the justice frequent rides on private jets, vacations to luxury resorts, and trips on his superyachts. Crow also purchased $133,000 in real estate from Thomas, and footed private school tuition bills for a child the justice was raising. Subsequent reporting has also exposed Thomas’ relationship with other powerful conservative players, including the Koch brothers, oil tycoon Paul “Tony” Novelly, H. Wayne Huizenga, the former owner of the Miami Dolphins, and investor David Sokol.  

Facing public pressure over the revelations regarding Thomas’ finances, the Supreme Court adopted its first-ever independent code of ethics in November. The document calls for justices to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.” It’s vague at best, and does not mandate disclosures from the justices, but if “appearance of impropriety” is the standard, Justice Thomas is clearly in violation.

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