Several lawyers who have had business before the supreme court, including one who successfully argued to end race-conscious admissions at universities, paid money to a top aide to Justice Clarence Thomas, according to the aide’s Venmo transactions. The payments appear to have been made in connection to Thomas’s 2019 Christmas party.
The payments to Rajan Vasisht, who served as Thomas’s aide from July 2019 to July 2021, seem to underscore the close ties between Thomas, who is embroiled in ethics scandals following a series of revelations about his relationship with a wealthy billionaire donor, and certain senior Washington lawyers who argue cases and have other business in front of the justice.
Vasisht’s Venmo account – which was public prior to requesting comment for this article and is no longer – show that he received seven payments in November and December 2019 from lawyers who previously served as Thomas legal clerks. The amount of the payments is not disclosed, but the purpose of each payment is listed as either “Christmas party”, “Thomas Christmas Party”, “CT Christmas Party” or “CT Xmas party”, in an apparent reference to the justice’s initials.
However, it remains unclear what the funds were for.
The lawyers who made the Venmo transactions were: Patrick Strawbridge, a partner at Consovoy McCarthy who recently successfully argued that affirmative action violated the US constitution; Kate Todd, who served as White House deputy counsel under Donald Trump at the time of the payment and is now a managing party of Ellis George Cipollone’s law office; Elbert Lin, the former solicitor general of West Virginia who played a key role in a supreme court case that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; and Brian Schmalzbach, a partner at McGuire Woods who has argued multiple cases before the supreme court.
Other lawyers who made payments include Manuel Valle, a graduate of Hillsdale College and the University of Chicago Law School who clerked for Thomas last year and is currently working as a managing associate at Sidley, and Liam Hardy, who was working at the Department of Justice’s office of legal counsel at the time the payment was made and now serves as an appeals court judge for the armed forces.
Will Consovoy, who died earlier this year, also made a payment. Consovoy clerked for Thomas during the 2008-09 term and was considered a rising star in conservative legal circles. After his death, the New York Times reported that Consovoy had come away from his time working for Thomas “with the conviction that the court was poised to tilt further to the right – and that constitutional rulings that had once been considered out of reach by conservatives, on issues like voting rights, abortion and affirmative action, would suddenly be within grasp”.
None of the lawyers who made payments responded to emailed questions from the Guardian.
According to his résumé, Vasisht’s duties included assisting the justice with the administrative functioning of his chambers, including personal correspondence and his personal and office schedule.
Vasisht did not respond to an emailed list of questions from the Guardian, including questions about who solicited the payments, how much individuals paid, and what the purpose of the payments was. The Guardian also asked questions about the nature of Thomas’s Christmas party, how many guests were invited and where the event took place.
Reached via WhatsApp and asked if he would make a statement, Vasisht replied: “No thank you, I do not want to be contacted.”
Legal experts said the payments to Vasisht raised red flags.
Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W Bush administration and has been a vocal critic of the role of dark money in politics, said it was “not appropriate” for former Thomas law clerks who were established in private practice to – in effect – send money to the supreme court via Venmo.
“There is no excuse for it. Thomas could invite them to his Christmas party and he could attend Christmas parties, as long as they are not discussing any cases. His Christmas party should not be paid for by lawyers,” Painter said. “A federal government employee collecting money from lawyers for any reason … I don’t see how that works.”
Painter said he would possibly make an exception if recent law clerks were paying their own way for a party. But almost all of the lawyers who made the payments are senior litigators at big law firms.
Kedric Payne, the general counsel and senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said that – based on available information – it was possible that the former clerks were paying their own party expenses, and not expenses for Thomas, which he believed was different than random lawyers in effect paying admission to an exclusive event to influence the judge.
He added: “But the point remains that the public is owed an explanation so they don’t have to speculate.”
Thomas has been embroiled in ethics scandals for weeks following bombshell revelations by ProPublica, the investigative outlet which published new revelations about how the billionaire conservative donor Harlan Crow has paid for lavish holidays for the justice, bought Thomas’s mother’s home, and paid for the judge’s great-nephew’s private school education. The stories have prompted an outcry on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have called for the passage of new ethics rules.
Thomas is known for having close relationships with his former clerks. A 2019 article in the Atlantic noted that the rightwing justice has a “vast network” of former clerks and mentees who are now serving as federal judges and served in senior positions throughout the Trump administration. The large presence of former Thomas clerks, the Atlantic noted, meant that the “notoriously silent justice may end up with an outsize voice in the legal system for years to come”.
Thomas’s chamber did not respond to a request for comment.
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