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US supreme court accused of becoming a law unto itself

Revelations involving judges Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas have left them open to charges of corruption and venality

US supreme court justice Samuel Alito: 'It is the highest court in the land with the lowest ethical standards,' says Jamie Raskin, the Democrat ranking member of the House oversight committee. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

“You’re an American hero,” Lauren Windsor told justice Samuel Alito at a supreme court Historical Society black-tie event in Washington last week.

“I doubt that,” Alito replied. “But thanks.”

The exchange was an aside secretly recorded by Windsor, a liberal activist posing as a sympathetic, anti-abortion campaigner, as she mingled with chief justice John Roberts, Alito and his wife Martha at the function.

Although doubts were expressed about the ethics of Windsor’s approach, she defended herself by asking a question which ricocheted around Tuesday afternoon’s round-table of the Democrat’s committee on oversight on accountability. The committee was addressing the threat presented by dark money and conservative networks to the integrity of a court widely perceived as corrupt.


Windsor asked in a television interview: “To people who want to pearl-clutch about this: please tell me how we are going to get answers since the SC has been in shrouded in secrecy and refusing any degree of accountability whatsoever?”

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The most gilded institution in the land has left itself open to accusations of corruption and venality. For the past week, details emerged from an analysis by non-profit organisation Fix the Court of the jaw-dropping range of gifts accepted by justice Clarence Thomas, who has been on the supreme court since 1991. Thomas accepted gifts and holidays estimated to be worth more than $4 million between 2004 and 2023 and exceeding the total value of all gifts accepted by his fellow justices tenfold.

Dismissing his failure to disclose the gifts as a misunderstanding, Thomas this week amended an earlier filing to acknowledge that he has accepted trips to Bali and to an exclusive men’s club in California paid for by conservative billionaire and Republican donor Harlan Crow. What Alito perceived as a media vendetta against his colleague came up in the conversation he had with Windsor, who asked him why the media was so critical of the current court.

“Well, I think it’s a simple reason: they don’t like our decisions, and they don’t like how they anticipate how we may decide some cases that are coming up. These groups are very well-funded by ideological groups that have spearheaded these attacks. That’s what it is. ProPublica gets a lot of money and they have spent a fortune investigating Clarence Thomas for everything he has ever done in his entire life. You know. They look for any little thing and they try to make something out of it.”

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Thomas and Alito (2006) are supreme court veterans who combine with Donald Trump’s three appointees Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy-Coney Barrett to form the majority vote in an exceptionally conservative court. The 2022 decision to reverse the 50-year-old Roe v Wade abortion rights decision has become one of the many ideological battlegrounds ahead of the upcoming election.

It wasn’t just Alito who was caught up in the conversation. For weeks, the background controversy revolving around the extraordinary and daft flag obsession of Alito’s wife Martha has served as a useful metaphor for everything that is questionable about the ideological and political composition of the supreme court. Over a year has passed since the New York Times reported that outside the Alito’s summer home in New Jersey, an upside down national flag and an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which was carried by the “Stop the Steal” rioters on January 6th, 2021, were to be seen flying. Alito laid the responsibility for raising those flags with his wife. And in her conversation with Windsor, it became evident that Martha Alito was far from chastened by the flag criticism.

“I want a Sacred Heart of Jesus flag because I have to look across the lagoon at the Pride flag for the next month,” she says in the released audio clip.

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Referring to her husband, she says: “And he’s like, `Oh please don’t put up the flag’. I said, ‘I won’t do it because I’m deferring to you. But when you are free of this nonsense, I’m putting it up and I’m going to send them a message every day.’”

These episodes would be classified as embarrassing for the supreme court had its right-leaning justices ever demonstrated a hint of humility. This week’s hearing at Capitol Hill may mark the beginning of a period when legislators examine ways of reining in an entity that has become a law unto itself.

“We began to talk about what sorts of things both in the specific cases of justices Alito and Thomas and in a general way about the ethical collapse of the supreme court,” said Jamie Raskin, the Democrat ranking member of the House oversight committee.

“It is the highest court in the land with the lowest ethical standards. These are the only governmental officials in the land not governed by a binding ethics code. There is no process by which we can hold any of them accountable.”

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