WASHINGTON (CN) — Ethical concerns about Justice Clarence Thomas remained center stage on Thursday as new reporting from the Washington Post revealed that Leonard Leo, a conservative judicial activist and longtime top member of the conservative Federalist Society, paid Clarence's wife Ginni tens of thousands of dollars.
Documents reviewed by the Post revealed Leo wanted payments to Ginni Thomas to remain secret — with Leo stressing in paperwork that there should be “no mention of Ginni, of course" when it came to the donations. Leo paid Ginni through the Judicial Education Project, a nonprofit he advised.
In 2012 — the year Leo directed Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to make the payments to Ginni — Leo's group also filed an amicus brief before the court in Shelby County v. Holder, a landmark voting rights case.
In a narrow 5-4 majority that included Clarence, justices in that case ultimately removed civil rights-era rules requiring some jurisdictions, mostly in the south, to seek federal "preclearance" before they made changes to voting procedures. The Judicial Education Project advocated for that position in its amicus brief.
The nonprofit's position didn't just match the final ruling — it also coincided with a concurring opinion from Clarence arguing that the preclearance requirement was unconstitutional. Several other conservative groups also submitted briefs with similar views.
Conway’s own firm billed the Judicial Education Project $25,000, ostensibly for consulting work. Ginni Thomas’ firm, Liberty Consulting, received $80,000 between June 2011 and June 2012.
In an interview with the Post, Leo claimed he kept the payment secret out of respect for the Thomas family's privacy.
After all, Leo said, people could be "disrespectful, malicious, and gossipy."
A longtime leader of the Federalist Society, a group that advocates for what it calls an "originalist" interpretation of the constitution, Leo has been lauded by conservatives and chastised by liberals for his efforts to reshape the judiciary.
Founded in 2004 by some of Leo's acquaintances, the Judicial Education Project is a part of that effort. Tax filings reviewed by the Post showed it was only bringing in around $50,000 annually when it was given tax-exempt status in 2011. A year later, however, it raked in $1.5 million from unknown donors.
Its revenue continued to grow, from $66 million in 2020 to $117 million in 2021. The group ultimately rebranded as the 85 Fund.
It has continued to play a role in election policy — including in 2020, when it sent what critics called "misleading data" to several secretaries of state, threatening them with lawsuits if they didn't pull people from voter rolls.
Still, even as the group expanded its revenue, its operational size remained around the same.
The 85 Fund has never had more than a handful of employees, the Post reported. Its address is listed as a UPS store in D.C.
Reports of secret payments to Ginni were not the only troubling news to surface about the Thomas family on Thursday.
Also that day, ProPublica published new reporting on gifts Clarence received from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow. Namely, Crow was paying for Clarence's nephew's education, the outlet reported.
Previously, ProPublica reported that Crow had bankrolled luxury vacations and a six-figure property for the Thomas family. None of these expenses are mentioned in Clarence’s legally mandated financial disclosures.
The Supreme Court itself has had little to say on these ethical lapses. Chief Justice John Roberts declined to testify before Congress on the matter — though all nine justices did sign onto the guidelines they were supposed to already be following.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. Lawmakers, however, have made little progress on the issue of whether Congress could or should force an ethics code on the justices.Follow @KelseyReichmann
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