Where Clarence Thomas entered an elite circle and opened a door to the Supreme Court

By Abbie VanSickle and Steve Eder, The New York Times, July 9,2023.

On Oct. 15, 1991, Clarence Thomas secured his seat on the Supreme Court, a narrow victory after a bruising confirmation fight that left him isolated and disillusioned.

Within months, the new justice enjoyed a far-warmer acceptance to a second exclusive club: the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, named for the Gilded Age author whose rags-to-riches novels represented an aspirational version of Justice Thomas’s own bootstraps origin story.

If Justice Thomas’s life had unfolded as he had envisioned, his Horatio Alger induction might have been a celebration of his triumphs as a prosperous lawyer instead of a judge. But as he tells it, after graduating from Yale Law School, he was turned down by a series of top law firms, rejections he attributes to a perception that he was a token beneficiary of affirmative action. So began his grudging path to a judicial career that brought him great prestige but only modest material wealth after decades of financial struggle.

When he joined the Horatio Alger Association, Justice Thomas entered a world whose defining ethos of meritocratic success — that anyone can achieve the American dream with hard work, pluck and a little luck — was the embodiment of his own life philosophy, and a foundation of his jurisprudence. As he argued from the bench in his concurrence to the recent decision striking down affirmative action, the court should be “focusing on individuals as individuals,” rather than on the view that Americans are “all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society.”

At Horatio Alger, he moved into the inner circle, a cluster of extraordinarily wealthy, largely conservative members who lionized him and all that he had achieved. While he has never held an official leadership position, in some ways he has become the association’s leading light. He has granted it unusual access to the Supreme Court, where every year he presides over the group’s signature event: a ceremony in the courtroom at which he places Horatio Alger medals around the necks of new lifetime members. One entrepreneur called it “the closest thing to being knighted in the United States.” At the same time, Justice Thomas has served as the group’s best messenger, meeting with and mentoring the recipients of millions of dollars a year in Horatio Alger college scholarships, many of whom come from backgrounds that mirror his own.

“The Horatio Alger Association has been a home to Virginia and me,” Justice Thomas said, referring to his wife, as he received the group’s most prestigious award in 2010. The organization, he added, “has allowed me to see my dreams come true.”

His friendships forged through Horatio Alger have brought him proximity to a lifestyle of unimaginable material privilege. Over the years, his Horatio Alger friends have welcomed him at their vacation retreats, arranged V.I.P. access to sporting events and invited him to their lavish parties. In 2004, he joined celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Ed McMahon at a three-day 70th birthday bash in Montana for the industrialist Dennis Washington. Several Horatio Alger friends also helped finance the marketing of a hagiographic documentary about the justice in the wake of an HBO film that had resurfaced Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against him during his confirmation.

Prominent among his Horatio Alger friends has been David Sokol, the onetime heir apparent to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. Mr. Sokol describes the justice and his wife as “close personal friends,” and in 2015, the Sokols hosted the Thomases for a visit to their sprawling Montana ranch. The Sokols have also hosted the Thomases at their waterfront mansion in Florida.

In recent months, Justice Thomas has faced scrutiny over new revelations by ProPublica of his relationship to Harlan Crow, the Texas billionaire, whose largess over more than two decades has included vacations on a superyacht, private school tuition for the great-nephew the justice was raising, and the purchase of his mother’s Savannah, Ga., home. None of this was reported by the justice, and the revelations have renewed calls for tighter Supreme Court ethics rules.

But a look at his tenure at the Horatio Alger Association, based on more than two dozen interviews and a review of public filings and internal documents, shows that Justice Thomas has received benefits — many of them previously unreported — from a broader cohort of wealthy and powerful friends. They have included major donors to conservative causes with broad policy and political interests and much at stake in Supreme Court decisions, even if they were not directly involved in the cases.

Justice Thomas declined to respond to detailed questions from The New York Times.

In his early years on the court, Justice Thomas disclosed about 20 private plane flights and an assortment of other gifts, including cigars, a Daytona 500 jacket, a silver buckle and a rawhide coat. After The Los Angeles Times chronicled his gifts and travel in 2004, he stopped disclosing private flights and has seldom reported gifts or other benefits. After the Crow revelations, the justice said that “colleagues and others in the judiciary” had advised him that he did not need to report the hospitality of good friends.

His decision not to disclose many benefits for nearly two decades — beyond trips related to teaching, speeches and attending legal or academic conferences — has made it difficult to track potential conflicts of interest.

Justices are allowed to accept gifts and free travel, and many other justices have disclosed receiving such benefits. The justices, like all federal judges, are required to complete an annual form listing investments, gifts and other financial ties. Yet in some cases the rules are ambiguous, and the disclosures do not provide a full portrait of gifts or finances.

While the court has no formal ethics system, the federal courts’ policymakers earlier this year announced more stringent disclosure rules, requiring the justices to report travel by private jet, as well as free stays at commercial properties like hotels, resorts and hunting lodges. However, the justices do not have to document the amount of a spouse’s income, and there are a number of other exceptions, including information about the receipt of “personal hospitality” — food, lodging or entertainment of a personal, nonbusiness nature.

Justice Thomas’s acceptance of such hospitality apparently predates his time on the court. A former girlfriend said in an interview that “a buddy” of Justice Thomas had paid for their vacation in the Bahamas in the mid-1980s, when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A longtime friend said he had paid for the justice’s 1987 wedding reception.

At the Horatio Alger Association, the justice’s circle has also included Mr. Washington and Wayne Huizenga, the entrepreneur who built the Blockbuster Video empire and owned the Miami Dolphins. (Mr. Huizenga died in 2018.) In 2001, Mr. Huizenga’s foundation joined Mr. Crow in helping underwrite the restoration and dedication of a library wing in Savannah in the justice’s honor.

It was Mr. Sokol who introduced the justice in 2010 when the Horatio Alger Association awarded him its top honor. In December 2015, the Thomases wrote to friends about their visit to the Sokols’ ranch.

“David and Peggy Sokol hosted us in Montana for a ranch visit and tour of Yellowstone,” the Thomases said in the letter, which was reviewed by The Times. The Thomases brought along their dog, Petey, who played with the Sokols’ dog, Bodie. They wrote: “Bodie showed Petey how to be a ranch dog, without a leash! LIBERTY!”

The trip, they concluded, was “pure heaven for all of us!”

Tasting the Good Life

The Clarence Thomas origin story begins in a dirt-floor shack in Pin Point, a tiny community founded by formerly enslaved people in the salt marsh lands outside Savannah.

When he is 20, after a brief spell in a Roman Catholic seminary, it continues at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he is one of a small group of young Black men who integrate the school. There, in the spring of 1971, his senior year, he receives a letter from Yale Law School. He worries that the thin envelope means a rejection. But one of the nation’s most elite law schools wants him.

“My heart raced and my spirits lifted,” Justice Thomas wrote in his autobiography.

At Yale, he was one of only 12 Black students in his law school class, admitted the year the law school introduced an affirmative action plan. His white classmates viewed him as a token, he felt — a belief in the corrosive effects of affirmative action that was only deepened by his failure to win the law firm job he had dreamed of.

“I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value,” he later wrote. Separately, he described leaving Yale as a new father, with a “swirling combination of frustration, of some disappointments, of some anxiety about the future, and some anxiety about how I would repay my student loans, how I would feed a young child, where I would live.”

By 1979, he had ended up in Washington, first as a legislative aide to Senator John Danforth of Missouri and then later as the Reagan administration’s chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

In the 1980s, Justice Thomas appeared in a public service announcement for the agency that featured the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite football team. He struck up a friendship with the team’s owner, Jerry Jones, and began to taste the good life that he still hoped would somehow become his own. As a profile from that period in The Legal Times reported, “He says he plans to be rich, says that means more than just a few hundred thousand dollars a year.”

Over the years, he flew in Mr. Jones’s private jet. Mr. Jones gave him a Super Bowl ring. He attended the Cowboys’ training camp, and when the team played in Washington, he sat in the owner’s box. (Mr. Jones later became a member of the Horatio Alger Association.)

In the mid-1980s, divorced and with custody of his son, Justice Thomas dated a woman named Lillian McEwen. In an interview, she remembered the Bahamas vacation, at a house with a caretaker and a car. She never knew the identity of the “buddy” footing the bill but understood it to be a professional contact because that was how the justice referred to such people, she said.

Not long after Ms. McEwen and Justice Thomas broke up, he met Virginia Lamp, known as Ginni. They married in 1987; Armstrong Williams, a close friend from Justice Thomas’s earliest days in Washington who is now a conservative commentator, said in an interview that he paid for their wedding reception.

At first the couple lived in a modest house on a busy street in Alexandria, Va. But in November 1992, wanting more privacy after the confirmation fight, they bought a home on a five-acre wooded lot, shielded from view, in Fairfax Station. They took out a 95 percent loan to buy the $522,000 house, property records show. (Since then, the Thomases have refinanced several times and taken out lines of credit, and while the home is worth more now, property records indicate that they owe as much as they did when they bought it.)

A Washington Post article from that time noted that while other justices cultivated public profiles through speeches or teaching, Justice Thomas rarely appeared outside the court. He was “the homebody of the bunch.”

“After the hearings, the Anita Hill hearings, there’s no way a human being could not have been changed,” Juan Williams, a journalist who extensively covered the justice’s early days in Washington and became friendly with him, said in a recent interview. “The human being I knew was just a different guy.”

‘He Opened Up the Supreme Court’

Soon after Justice Thomas joined the court, Armstrong Williams came to his chambers with a plan to restore his spirits.

Mr. Williams was not a member of the Horatio Alger Association, but he knew one. He pitched a skeptical Justice Thomas on the idea of joining as a chance to mentor a generation of promising Black students and “to be around a community of people that could help him heal.”

“I just knew he would find real relationships in that society,” Mr. Williams said.

Eventually, Mr. Williams said, he connected the justice with his acquaintance, Robert J. Brown, the owner of an international consulting firm. Mr. Brown confirmed that he was one of a few people who helped bring the justice into the organization.

The Horatio Alger Association was founded in 1947, according to its website, “to dispel the mounting belief among our nation’s youth that the American dream was no longer attainable.” To that end, the group has awarded more than $245 million in college scholarships to roughly 35,000 students. Its members have included a wide spectrum of people whose life stories exemplify the Horatio Alger credo, although they have trended conservative. Justice Thurgood Marshall and Fred Trump, former President Donald Trump’s father, were members. So was Harlan Crow’s father, Trammell Crow. Justice Thomas’s class of inductees included the poet Maya Angelou.

In a statement, a Horatio Alger spokeswoman noted that “the association is not privy to the relationships that individual members have with one another.” Of Justice Thomas she wrote, “We are grateful to him for the many hours he has spent speaking directly with scholars, providing them with mentorship and advice and welcoming them to the Supreme Court during our annual conference, affording them the opportunity to experience one of the most important institutions in the country.”

That statement was supported by former staff and scholarship winners, who in interviews said Justice Thomas often connected individually with students and took an ongoing interest in their lives.

Three decades ago, when Justice Thomas joined Horatio Alger, “We tried to get above the controversy and take a measure of his success,” the group’s awards chairman, James R. Moffett, said at the time.

The organization, according to Armstrong Williams, made Justice Thomas “realize that not everyone judges him by the confirmation process, particularly among people of that class and wealth group. They really treated him like a brother, like he mattered and, in return, he opened up the Supreme Court.”

Every spring, amid several days of festivities — generally a dinner at the National Portrait Gallery, a series of receptions at the Ritz-Carlton, an awards ceremony emceed by the likes of the actor Tom Selleck and the conservative pundit Lou Dobbs — Justice Thomas spends hours meeting privately with scholarship recipients and hosts a ceremony at the Supreme Court. In the courtroom, he conducts the organization’s foundational rite, the induction of roughly 10 new members. Toward the end of the ceremony, scholarship recipients make a brief appearance, walking in procession through the courtroom.

During induction ceremonies, Justice Thomas often told a story about feeling alone in law school at Yale. Anthony Hutcherson, an event producer and communications specialist for the association from 2000 to 2014, once had an entertainer sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The justice, Mr. Hutcherson said, “literally wept.”

The association has used access to the court ceremony and related events in the annual gathering to raise money for scholarships and other programming, according to fund-raising records reviewed by The Times.

The court discourages using its facilities, or the justices, to help raise money. In 2014, a court official emailed Horatio Alger staff members a reminder that photographs of the courtroom ceremony were “for internal use only by the association” and “may not be used for any promotional or fund-raising purpose.”

Justice Thomas’s use of the courtroom for the Horatio Alger Association, while hardly unprecedented, is quite rare. That special access and affiliation with Justice Thomas have become central to the identities of the organization and its members. Several have said they counted among their proudest achievements having Justice Thomas bestow their Horatio Alger medallions at the Supreme Court.

“He really seemed to like the fact that everyone else enjoys being in the courtroom,” said Mr. Hutcherson. Among people of almost inexhaustible wealth, “he could give them that, and nobody else could.”

Armstrong Williams came to have ambivalent feelings about the justice’s involvement in Horatio Alger. He loved to see the joy his old friend took in it, especially when working with young people.

“I don’t know anything that has brought him more delight,” Mr. Williams said. “Let me tell you, Horatio Alger has been one of the best things that has ever happened to him.”

But it also introduced the justice to a “whole different ecosystem” from the Black conservatives with whom he had come up in Washington.

“This is also about power and prestige,” Mr. Williams said. “I mean, Thomas is on the Supreme Court. Even though they provide for these kids, this is the true aristocracy of America.”

The Horatio Alger Association has repeatedly celebrated Justice Thomas. It has made him an honorary board member and twice created scholarships named after his son, Jamal. Both scholarships were unusual in that they directed money to two Virginia prep schools, instead of paying for college or graduate school. One, established at Fork Union Military Academy in 2002, overlapped with the attendance there of a young man whom Justice Thomas mentored. The other, begun at Randolph-Macon Academy in 2007, coincided with Justice Thomas’s great-nephew’s time there.

“Recipients were selected by the individual schools and, to our knowledge, scholarships were not awarded to” the students connected to Justice Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Horatio Alger Association said, adding that, overall, about 30 students have received the scholarships. Both schools declined to comment.

Reputation Defenders

Justice Thomas has never been among the wealthier members of the Supreme Court, according to his financial disclosures. In addition to his judicial salary — now $285,400 — his disclosures show $1.5 million he received for his autobiography, as well as income from teaching, which has been capped at roughly $30,000 a year for every justice. Without disclosing the amount, he also lists income from his wife, a political consultant whose ventures have been underwritten by ideological allies like the Heritage Foundation and Mr. Crow.

But he is hardly alone among his colleagues in accepting benefits from rich friends and sympathetic organizations.

Justice Antonin G. Scalia’s disclosures, for example, show that he took 258 subsidized trips from 2004 to 2014, to destinations that included Switzerland, Ireland and Hawaii. He died, in 2016, while staying for free at the West Texas hunting lodge of a business executive whose company had recently had a case before the Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disclosed more trips than any other justice in 2018. During a trip to Israel to accept a lifetime achievement award, she was a guest of the Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn; the year before, the court had given his company a victory by declining to take up a case. In a ranked list of privately paid travel by justices from 2004 to 2014, Justice Thomas came in second to last, but that covered a period when Justice Thomas had stopped disclosing gifts and trips beyond those related to teaching, speeches and conferences.

As Justice Thomas became a fixture at the Horatio Alger Association, he gained entree to the lives of some of the wealthy members at its core.

In January 2002, the justice and his wife attended a Horatio Alger board meeting at a resort developed on a former sugar plantation in Jamaica. Before a performance by Johnny and June Carter Cash, the Thomases conducted a “special session” for members, records show. It is unclear how they traveled to Jamaica or who paid for their stay.

In 2005, when Horatio Alger held a board meeting in Vancouver, Canada, Justice Thomas R.S.V.P.’d for an excursion to Mr. Washington’s property on Stuart Island, off the coast of British Columbia. The justice did not end up attending because he was at the funeral of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said a spokeswoman for the Horatio Alger Association. Mr. Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

In the 2000s, Justice Thomas made annual visits to South Florida to help Mr. Huizenga, the Dolphins owner, pass out scholarships, sometimes also meeting with the team. At least once, Justice Thomas flew in a private jet emblazoned with the Dolphins logo. Another time, a helicopter whisked him off the Dolphins’ practice field, according to Mr. Hutcherson, who attended the Florida trips.

“I love the Dolphins,” the justice said one year, before explaining his dual allegiance to Mr. Jones’s Dallas Cowboys. “I’m a Dolphins fan. Primarily a Cowboys fan, but a Dolphins fan also.”

In 2001, Mr. Huizenga’s foundation donated $25,000 to help restore, expand and name a wing of Savannah’s Carnegie Library in honor of Justice Thomas, records show. (Mr. Crow donated $175,000.) The library had been open to Black people during segregation, and Justice Thomas had spent many hours there in his youth.

In 2017, the year before Mr. Huizenga died, he held a “quiet, private meeting” with the justice at a Florida home of Mr. Sokol, according to a Horatio Alger publication. Mr. Sokol was out of town at the time, but he, too, had developed a bond with Justice Thomas.

Their friendship has extended beyond Horatio Alger, especially to University of Nebraska sports fandom, as their families share roots in the state. (Mrs. Thomas is from Omaha, as is Mr. Sokol, who spent more than a decade at the Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway before resigning in 2011.)

Together, Justice Thomas and Mr. Sokol, a major donor to the school, have enjoyed royal treatment at Cornhuskers football games, sitting in a suite with all-access passes, according to emails obtained through a public records request. After one stay in Nebraska, Mr. Sokol and Justice Thomas wrote to a contact at the university to express their thanks. “I echo what David Sokol said in his email. We LOVED our visit,” the justice wrote, adding, “There IS no place like Nebraska!”

The Thomases and the Sokols have also vacationed together in recent years. One 2020 photo shows the justice and Mr. Sokol standing behind a barbecue grill, wearing matching white chef’s toques. Another from the same year shows them on the deck of a boat. In a third, from 2022, they are wearing tie-dyed shirts; the caption reads, “Fishermen in tie-dye (good luck).”

In response to questions from The Times, Mr. Sokol described Justice Thomas as “a national treasure and a genuine example of the existence of the American dream,” and added, “I am a much better person because of our friendship.”

Mr. Sokol became one of the justice’s most vocal defenders when a 2016 HBO film resurfaced Anita Hill’s allegations. He published an opinion essay in The Washington Times, appeared on Lou Dobbs’s Fox News show and gave a speech at a Connecticut library in which he said the justice had faced “lies, innuendo, distortions and outright personal attacks.”

The HBO film prompted a response, a slickly produced documentary titled “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.”

As the credits roll, a list of its funders appears: among them Mr. Crow and friends from Horatio Alger, including Mr. Sokol and Mr. Washington.

Jo Becker and Jodi Kantor contributed reporting. Julie Tate contributed research.

Abbie VanSickle covers the ​Supreme Court with a focus on the world of the court, including its role in politics and the lives of the justices.​ She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and a graduate of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law. More about Abbie VanSickle

Steve Eder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Times. He is based in New York. More about Steve Eder

 Image Credits: The New York Times