Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gifts from a billionaire far exceed the level of bribery that for decades has prompted American calls for judicial reform abroad.
Applying US plans for judicial reforms, which scholarship says help nations prosper and democratize, to its own high court could clean up its mess.
Since April, reports emerged that Thomas had received nearly $2 million from real estate tycoon Harlan Crow. The gifts include a $500,000 trip to Indonesiaa $500,000 donation to his wife-owned Liberty Consulting (which paid him a salary of $120,000), $2,250 per night for 20 years at Crow’s Topridge Resort, $350,000 in total for five trips to the private jet from Crow (at $70,000 each), $150,000 for Thomas’s nephew’s tuition and $93,000 to buy your house above market value. This does not include an extended cruise to New Zealand (for which there is no estimate) or payments from Conservative justice campaigner Leonard Leo to Clarence Thomas’ wife for consultancy work, stating that his name is omitted from the billing documents.
The monetary value of these undeclared gifts exceeds the bribes paid to judges in other countries. Data on bribes paid to judges is obviously difficult to obtain, given the need for secrecy in corruption cases. One exception, however, comes from Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, whose corrupt schemes in the 1990s with his secret police chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, were documented by Montesinos’ surprising practice of asking for written receipts for bribes and film his illicit negotiations. There, a Supreme Court justice was offered a bribe of $10,000 per month, as well as medical care, to help swing an election. Even adding the promised eye surgery to the judge, that amount pales in comparison to what Thomas received in undeclared gifts. And that’s in comparison to the bribes offered to a corrupt judge in Peru under one of the most brazen dictatorships of our time. (To be precise, Peru was the sixth worst in terms of documented embezzlement of public funds behind Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu in Zaire, Abacha in Nigeria and Milošević in Serbia).
This major corruption scandal in the United States is ironic for a country that has financially supported judicial reforms abroad for decades. In my work, I have built a global database of 4,568 judicial reforms implemented by 500 foreign aid agencies since 1996. I see that $5.4 billion has been spent on these reforms since 1996. The biggest donors are USAID, the US foreign aid agency, and the World Bank, where the US has the largest voting power. These judicial reforms aim to improve the quality, speed and access of justice systems, and they generally contain anti-corruption elements with integrity training and monitoring of judges and justice officials.
The principle of these measures is that the rule of law is an important precondition for prosperity and the fight against corruption. Indeed, I find using rigorous statistical analysis that these reforms have had great positive effects on economies and on the reduction of corruption by the executive branches. Basically, they lead to a 22% increase in economic efficiency and a 10% increase in society’s expectations that the executive will obey the courts and the laws. In other words, the rule of law is a pillar of economic growth and a brake on power.
I am working on one of these judicial reforms in Kenya, measures financially supported by the World Bank to the tune of 120 million dollars. The World Bank and the Kenyan judiciary have developed a systematic data collection effort within the courts to understand their inner workings and measure performance, as well as to identify problems. Additional data is collected from court users to reveal corruption scandals. Using this data, we have developed an algorithm capable of detecting problems in the courts and monitoring judges, which produces strong positive effects, as shown in our still ongoing randomized controlled trial. The World Bank and Kenyan justice are thus pushing the courts into a new era of access to data, transparency and scientific experimentation.
These same standards are not applied in the United States. The most recent set of regulations for Supreme Court justices, passed quietly last March, allows for the acceptance of gifts of a personal nature. without disclosure (within certain limits). Thus, the Supreme Court is going in the opposite direction to that of the Kenyan judiciary, towards less complete data, less transparency and more opacity. In this regard, Clarence Thomas may be in the clear for his paid vacation (not for anything else, like private jets, tuition, and gifts to his wife), but the issue goes deeper.
Opacity and corruption have serious consequences. My work already shows that the absence of judicial reforms abroad, such as those advocated by the United States, have negative consequences on the economy And elite corruption. On a more conceptual level, the fundamental objective of an impartial legal system is to level the playing field: the rules are the same for everyone, no one is above the law and everyone has the opportunity to s flourish. When the legal system is skewed in favor of wealthy people, the rules of the game tilt in their favor and the incentives to innovate and grow disappear for the rest of the population. Inequality grows in a vicious circle towards more tyranny of the wealthy. That’s what’s at stake here. The United States should take a long look in the mirror and implement the judicial reforms it has championed abroad, at home in its high court.
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.