Clarence Thomas threatened to resign over salary issues in 2000


Justice Clarence Thomas pressured congressional lawmakers for higher pay early in his Supreme Court tenure, threatening to resign and inspiring a campaign by Republican supporters to meet his demands, according to a memo to the chief justice. Supreme in June 2000.

The memo, previously reported by ProPublica and obtained by The New York Times, underscores the financial pressures Judge Thomas may have faced at the time and lays bare some of the political risks that would come with Congress raising judges' salaries. The memo was contained in the papers of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, preserved at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

According to the memo, written by a senior official in the federal court system, L. Ralph Mecham, Judge Thomas took up the issue of compensation with Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. Salaries at the Supreme Court were unsatisfactory, the judge said, and “one or more justices will soon leave” if compensation is not increased.

Those concerns led Stearns' office to seek help from a Podesta-affiliated lobbying group to draft a bill that would increase judges' pay. In doing so, a lobbyist asked a series of federal judges for guidance, raising reservations about the request and concern about how best to respond.

In 2000, Judge Thomas' salary, that of an associate justice on the court, was $173,600 a year, more than $300,000 today. (Justice Thomas and the other associate justices now earn $285,400 a year.)

In a letter to Judge Thomas obtained by ProPublica, Stearns described the details of their conversation and promised to look into the salary issue. “I intend to study a bill to increase the salaries of members of the Supreme Court,” he wrote. “As we agreed, Americans value a correct interpretation of the Constitution.”

“His importance as a conservative was paramount,” Stearns told ProPublica in a recent interview. “We wanted to make sure he felt comfortable in his job and that he was paid appropriately.”

The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the memo, Mecham, addressing Chief Justice Rehnquist, cited the conversation and asked the Chief Justice's advice in handling “this delicate matter.”

Under Stearns' proposal, Mecham wrote, an amendment would separate the justices' compensation from that of all other judges, as well as members of Congress and the Cabinet. He would also establish a commission that would study judges' salaries.

“From a tactical standpoint, given the public statements made largely by Democratic lobbyists, it won't take Democrats and liberals in Congress long to realize that the major beneficiaries who might otherwise leave the Court are presumably They are Justices Thomas and Scalia. ”wrote Mr. Mecham.

Mecham's letter to the Chief Justice questioned the wisdom of even pressuring Congress to approve a pay raise for Supreme Court justices.

“Within the judiciary, this could risk looking like a dog-in-the-manger approach,” he wrote. “For Congress, it could be seen as another effort by the judiciary to disassociate itself from congressional compensation, something even our best friends have refused to do, although it would be limited to judges only, which might make it more palatable. But I'm not entirely sure.”

That year, Chief Justice Rehnquist echoed those complaints in a year-end report that cited “what I consider the most pressing problem facing the judiciary: the need to increase judicial salaries.”

The revelations about Justice Thomas' complaints add to the debate over ethics at the Supreme Court and his personal finances, which have repeatedly led him to seek the advice and support of billionaire donors.

At this time, Mr. Thomas was in great debt. A year earlier, Judge Thomas obtained a personal loan of $267,230 from Anthony Welters, a healthcare industry magnate, to purchase a recreational vehicle that he could not pay in full for years.

Abbie VanSickle contributed with reports.

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