Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas scared a House Republican in 2000 by threatening to retire if Congress did not enhance the compensation of judges.
According to ProPublica, Thomas was sitting next to Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, on a trip back from a conservative convention in Georgia. According to the journal, Thomas was in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time of the chat.
According to ProPublica, Thomas told Sterns that “one or more justices will leave soon” if lawmakers do not enhance the $173,600 compensation of lifetime appointed judges.
In the end, no such wage hike was approved. The bar on justices giving paid speeches has likewise not been lifted by Congress. Writing a book, like lawmakers, is the ideal option for judges to augment their income. Law schools frequently seek for justices to teach. Associate Justices now earn $285,400 per year. Members of Congress, on the other hand, receive $174,000 per year, a figure that has not increased since 2009.
It wasn’t for a want of effort. Stearns’ office later attempted to hire lobbying companies to work on increasing judicial salaries. Later, he delivered a speech on the matter on the House floor.
“His importance as a conservative was paramount,” Stearns recently told ProPublica. “We wanted to make sure he felt comfortable in his job, and he was being paid properly.”
Republicans maintained a slim Senate majority at the time of the reported exchange. However, Thomas’ anticipated retirement would have dealt a significant blow to conservatives. It’s also not a guarantee that a replacement would have been readily available.
Senators could practically force a Supreme Court nominee to earn 60 votes at the time, which was unusual. In 2006, Justice Samuel Alito was able to overcome this type of roadblock. The rules were modified in 2017 by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans in order to thwart Democrats’ efforts to prevent Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Thomas’ concerns were finally transmitted to then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was asked by a top judicial official how to address the incident, according to a classified memo obtained by ProPublica.
“I await your advice and counsel as to how you would like us to handle this delicate matter,” wrote L. Ralph Mecham, the judiciary’s chief administrative official at the time, to Rehnquist in June 2000.
Mecham noted that House Democrats would most likely view the endeavor as a way to please conservative judges, adding that “they would be perfectly happy to have them leave.”
“From a tactical point of view, given the public statements made largely by Democratic lobbyists, it will not take the Democrats and liberals in Congress very long to figure out the prime beneficiaries who might otherwise leave the Court presumably are Justices Thomas and Scalia.,” he stated in the letter.
It is unknown how Rehnquist reacted. However, as ProPublica noted, the conservative stalwart eventually made an appeal concerning the Supreme Court’s compensation in his year-end speech to Congress.
While chief justices have minimal power over their colleagues, they nevertheless preside over the Judicial Conference, the federal courts’ policymaking body. The annual report is closely followed because the Supreme Court has a history of saying little of importance outside of the opinions it issues.
“I will focus in this report on what I consider to be the most pressing issue facing the Judiciary: the need to increase judicial salaries,” Rehnquist said in a statement.
According to ProPublica, the full picture of Thomas’ finances is yet unknown. However, it spent months documenting the costly trips and presents from close friends, including those with court business, that he accepted. Thomas has categorically denied any misconduct.
A representative for the Supreme Court did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.