This past weekend, at the exclusive Rancho Las Palmas resort near Palm Springs, California, the infamous Koch brothers hosted a gala for some of the largest titans of industry and government; the influential and the moneyed. It wasn't necessarily a celebratory gathering to praise and applaud those who participated in a hard-fought election, but rather a secretive planning and strategizing session for the prominent conservative elected (and un-elected) officials, donors and strategists that have been shaping American political thought and policy the last few years. The twice-a-year gathering has been framed as a session "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it."
It's not known whether two Supreme Court justices, namely Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, were attending the Rancho Las Palmas festivities, but it is known that both have had dealings with David and Charles Koch in the past and have been guests of the notorious pair at similar occasions. This has raised red-flags, appropriately so, by legal ethicists and other groups who want to see more disclosure. Although supreme court justices are not barred, like federal judges, from appearing at partisan events, they are ethically-bound from attending overt political planning functions. Obviously, their presence at these conferences greatly raises questions of transparency and, for some, broader concerns about judicial independence.
Last spring, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and signed by Common Cause President & CEO Bob Edgar and Vice President Arn Pearson, they asked that the Justice Department promptly investigate whether Justices Thomas and Scalia should have recused themselves from the Citizens United case. If the Department finds sufficient grounds for disqualification of either Justice, they have requested that the Solicitor General file a motion with the full Supreme Court seeking to vacate the judgment.
Although sufficient evidence may be unattainable, questions included in the petition include: (1) Would a reasonable person question the impartiality of Justices Thomas and Scalia based on their attendance at secretive Koch Industries retreats?, and (2) Does attendance of a closed-door Koch Industries retreat constitute political activity? Common Cause argues, “We believe it is inappropriate for a Supreme Court judge to be ‘featured’ at or attend closed-door strategy meetings with political donors, corporate CEOs, candidates and political officials, and thereby lend the prestige of their position to the political goals of that event” and “A reasonable person would question the impartiality of Justices Thomas and Scalia in the Citizens United case based on their attendance at political strategy meetings sponsored by a corporation that raises and spends millions to defeat Democrats and elect Republicans”.
And there's another fly in the ointment that may add credence to Common Cause's request: As you can probably imagine (simply because you undoubtedly consider yourself a "reasonable person"), federal judges -- and justices -- are required by law to disclose their spouse's income. This prohibits unsavory organizations and individuals from influencing the judiciary by channeling money (i.e., "influence") through their wife or husband. Yet, Justice Thomas has not complied with this requirement for years. Between 2003 and 2007, Virginia Thomas, Justice Thomas' wife, earned $686,589 from the Heritage Foundation, according to a Common Cause review of the foundation’s IRS records. Thomas failed to note the income in his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms for those years, instead checking a box labeled “none” where “spousal noninvestment income” would be disclosed. It's also known that Virginia Thomas has been active in the political group, Liberty Central, an organization of her founding, that's predominately guided by the Tea Party's vague philosophies of limited government, free enterprise, national security, and personal responsibility, and is also funded charitably by Koch Industries, the second largest private corporation in America.
Thus, the Common Cause petition to the Department of Justice also asked a third very critical question: Did Justice Thomas have a conflict of interest based on his wife’s interest in the subject matter of the Citizens United case? If so, and this is an equally important question to ask (again, assuming you're a "reasonable person"): Does Koch Industries' ties to Virginia Thomas' organization, Liberty Central, create an additional appearance of bias for Justice Thomas?
Knowing what we know now -- that Koch Industries, a major beneficiary of the Citizens United decision, and benefiting from the ruling to expand its multi-million dollar investment in political campaigns and causes -- should the Citizens United ruling be vacated? If there were a such thing as justice, and rule of law, it would be. But given the American mainstream media, and its refusal to report this, the vast majority of Americans will never even be aware of this blatant and obvious conflict of interest. And not being aware creates no pressure by We the People to force and elicit change through the Obama Administration. If the Common Cause petition ever sees the light of day, I'll be surprised. In just about all areas, this administration has shown it's more concerned with the welfare of corporate America than with the rights of We the People. I'm sure this will be no exception.