Question: What do Clarence Thomas and the Republican legislators in Tennessee have in common? Answer: They both epitomize the corruption of American democracy–a corruption that has led to a precipitous decline in public confidence in America’s governing institutions.
Several media outlets have reported on recent polling from Gallup that shows trust in the judicial branch at record lows. Only 47 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the federal judiciary– a drop of 20 percentage points from two years earlier. When asked about the Supreme Court, it was worse: 58 percent disapproved of the high court’s performance.
Those numbers are unlikely to improve following the most recent disclosures about Justice Thomas and his “dear friend” Harlan Crowe. The initial revelations about Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious trips were stunning enough, but the Justice’s argument that he hadn’t needed to report them since they were just “hospitality”–while unconvincing–left him some rhetorical wiggle-room.
The latest revelations don’t.
This time, Thomas directly received money from Crow — perhaps in excess of the market value of the Chatham County, Ga., properties that Crow purchased from Thomas and his kin. This is no longer about receiving “personal hospitality.” It’s about a financial transaction between Thomas and a GOP donor who has also subsidized his vacations.
There is no doubt that the sale of personal real estate to Crow should have been reported on the justice’s financial disclosure form for 2014, and there is no excuse for failing to do so. The most logical explanation is that Thomas, whose relationship with Crow had already been the subject of unflattering news reports, wanted to keep it from public view.
The linked article also notes that Thomas has failed to report his wife’s considerable income from Rightwing organizations–although the law clearly requires that income to be reported.
Inescapable bottom line: Clarence Thomas is corrupt, and his judicial decisions are compromised.
Then there is the emerging information about the Tennessee legislature–information that probably would not have been uncovered or widely disseminated had that body not over-reacted to a breach of House decorum by expelling two young Black Democrats.
Democracy Docket has taken a deeper dive into that gerrymandered legislature’s disdain for representative democracy. Tennessee, like Indiana, has a Republican super-majority–courtesy of gerrymandering–that routinely acts to disempower state Democrats.
Tennessee’s Democratic cities have come under a coordinated attack from lawmakers. In March, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a law that forces the Nashville Metro Council to reduce its membership by half. Two lawsuits were filed challenging the law and on April 10, a Tennessee court temporarily blocked portions of the law while litigation continues.
After the expulsion of Pearson, GOP legislators threatened to withdraw funding from important projects in Memphis’ Shelby County if Pearson was reappointed.
In the latest round of redistricting, the Legislature divided Davidson County, home to Nashville, into three separate districts, dismantling the city’s Democratic-held seat. The lawmakers also approved state legislative districts that entrenched Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. (Notably, the recent expulsions were only possible because of GOP supermajority control.)
Tennessee denies voting rights to over 470,000 citizens with one of the strictest (and most complicated) felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States. The state disenfranchises 21% of its Black voting-age population, the highest percentage in the country.
Tennessee has restrictive voting laws, leading to a low democracy tally by the Movement Advancement Project. Instead of improving voting access, the Legislature’s priorities have included laws requiring state and local officials to consult with the legislative leadership before changing certain state election laws and prohibiting election offices from accepting any private grant for election administration.
And we wonder why Americans no longer trust our political institutions…why so many of us have moved from skepticism to cynicism.
Political trust is generally described as citizens’ confidence in their political institutions. As political scientists repeatedly warn, that trust is an important component and indicator of political legitimacy; its erosion is not something to be taken lightly.
As I used to tell my students, an enormous number of American laws depend upon voluntary compliance by citizens–everything from filing taxes to obeying traffic signals. The ability of the authorities to catch and punish scofflaws depends upon the fact that the rule-breakers are relatively few. When citizens no longer trust that those in power are following the rules, rising numbers of them will feel justified in breaking those rules as well.
And it’s all inter-related
A properly functioning Supreme Court would have outlawed the rampant gerrymandering that produced Tennessee’s –and other state’s–rogue legislature.
As NASA might put it: Houston, we have a problem.