On Monday, December 18, 2023, investigative news outlet ProPublica revealed that in early 2000, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had expressed concerns about his financial situation and had hinted at the possibility of resigning if salaries were not increased. Through interviews and documents from the time, ProPublica shed light on private discussions Thomas was having during a pivotal point in his tenure on the nation’s highest court.
According to the report, in January 2000 Thomas attended a conservative conference in Georgia. On the flight back, he told Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns that Congress should give justices a pay raise or else “one or more justices will leave soon – maybe in the next year.” At the time, Thomas’ $173,600 salary was less than other positions and had failed to keep pace with inflation. As one of the less wealthy members of the court, Thomas had accumulated hundreds of thousands in debt and taken on new family expenses by taking in his young grandnephew.
Stearns was alarmed by Thomas’ warning and wrote him a letter promising to look into a salary increase bill. He also shared Thomas’ comments with other judges’ associations and the judiciary’s top official, L. Ralph Mecham. In a confidential memo, Mecham informed Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the “delicate matter,” saying Thomas had told Stearns departures would occur within a year. Mecham worried Democrats might oppose a raise if meant to keep Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia, who also had financial struggles, on the bench.
Over the next few months, Rehnquist addressed salary concerns in his annual report while Stearns lobbied colleagues on the House floor. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recalled serious unease at the time that Thomas or others might resign. However, some close to Thomas found the idea of him quitting implausible, believing he may have exaggerated to push for more money. ProPublica uncovered that Thomas had separately discussed lifting a ban on paid speeches with a judiciary committee chair.
While Congress did not approve a major raise or allow outside income, in following years Thomas received tens of thousands in gifts from wealthy benefactors like Harlan Crow and vacation accommodations on private jets and yachts. By 2019, Thomas said he felt his salary was “plenty” and was not living extravagantly, seemingly having changed his views on compensation since early 2000. The extent and nature of the gifts to Thomas from influential figures remain an ongoing source of questions around influence and ethics at the Supreme Court.