Multiple lawyers who’ve had business before the Supreme Court sent money to Justice Clarence Thomas’s top aide, according to Venmo transactions uncovered by the Guardian. The payment descriptions refer to a Christmas party held in 2019, but the amounts aren’t public and it’s not clear what the money was actually for.
Rajan Vasisht was Thomas’ aide from July 2019 to July 2021, during which time he was responsible for assisting with administrative tasks for Thomas’ chambers, including managing his office, personal schedules, and handling personal correspondence. Vasisht received seven payments in November and December 2019 from lawyers who previously clerked for Thomas. The Supreme Court’s approval rating is at an all-time low due to conservative rulings and various ethics scandals; it certainly doesn’t help that reporters are uncovering a justice’s social and potentially financial ties to lawyers who argue cases in front of the court. (The ever-growing list of ethical concerns aside, it’s pretty funny that actual lawyers didn’t lock down their Venmo accounts.)
The lawyers include Patrick Strawbridge, who successfully argued to end the use of affirmative action in college admissions in front of the Supreme Court this term, and Elbert Lin, the former solicitor general of West Virginia, who successfully convinced the Supreme Court to limit the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act last year. Other payments came from lawyers who worked for the Trump administration at the time, including Manuel Valle, who worked at the Department of Justice’s office of legal counsel, and Kate Todd, who served as White House deputy counsel. Another lawyer, William Consovoy, represented President Donald Trump in his efforts to keep his tax returns private, a case the justices considered.
Reporter Stephanie Kirchgaessner shared a screenshot of one of the payments on Twitter in which Strawbridge wrote “Christmas Party.” Others said “Thomas Christmas Party,” “CT Christmas Party,” or “CT Xmas party.” The Guardian said the transactions became private after they reached out to Vasisht for comment. Kirchgaessner said none of the lawyers responded to her request for comment, nor did Thomas’ chamber, and Vasisht refused to comment.
Kedric Payne, the general counsel and senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Guardian that it’s possible the lawyers were simply “paying their own way” at a party with a sitting Supreme Court justice so that their invites couldn’t be misconstrued as gifts. But if they were trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety by reimbursing Thomas for their food and drink, why not just say that? “The public is owed an explanation so they don’t have to speculate,” Payne said. Perhaps they don’t want to talk about paying their own way because it makes Thomas’ many undisclosed free gifts and trips look even worse by comparison.
Whatever is going on, Thomas does appear to love letting other people pay for things even though he’s been clearing more than $200,000 a year for nearly two decades. GOP megadonor Harlan Crow paid private school tuition for a child Thomas was raising, and Crow has taken the justice on private flights and luxury yacht trips, ProPublica reported. Recent reporting from the New York Times details how Thomas was accepting lavish gifts even before joining the court, like how a friend paid for the wedding reception for Thomas’ 1987 marriage to Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist. Ginni now has her own lucrative career—one that is much too closely aligned with legal issues before the court.
There’s an email listserv for Thomas’ former law clerks (and Ginni is on it, too, which we know because she apologized to the listserv for her pro-Trump messages before and after the January 6 insurrection). I think we know what they’re talking about on that listserv today.