On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association of America, a lawsuit filed by predatory payday lenders seeking to strike down the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) independent funding mechanism—and by extension, the Bureau itself. The case, in which the agency is appealing a far-right Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last October, could have catastrophic impacts if the Roberts Court sides with the payday lender plaintiffs. As the Prospect’s David Dayen has noted, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “threatens the functioning of daily life,” as its radical interpretation of the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause would gut not only the CFPB (triggering a 2008-like mortgage market meltdown), but also many other regulatory agencies and federal programs without traditional appropriations—including Medicare, Social Security, and the Federal Reserve.
An obvious backdrop to this high-stakes case is the mounting ethics scandals of the Court’s conservative justices. Take Justice Samuel Alito, for example. Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer—who took Alito on a luxury Alaska fishing trip—holds at least $90 million in financial companies overseen by the CFPB. Alito has thus far failed to recuse himself from the case.
The ethics conflicts are even worse for Justice Clarence Thomas, who has also failed to recuse. According to ProPublica, Thomas has secretly attended at least two donor events for conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s political advocacy organization and is seen as a “fundraising draw” for the Koch network. Americans for Prosperity Foundation, one of the Koch empire’s many advocacy arms, has filed an amicus brief in CFPB v. CFSA calling the Bureau a “threat [to] liberty” and “mockery of the separation of powers.” Another anti-CFPB amicus filer in the case is none other than John Eastman, a former Thomas law clerk who is currently facing disbarment proceedings and a criminal indictment for trying to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election results. Eastman has previously tried to leverage his connections with Thomas to his benefit, corresponding with Thomas’s wife Ginni (a notably unhinged electoral fraud conspiracy theorist) in the run-up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
On top of all these egregious violations of elementary judicial ethics, our research revealed another ethics controversy surrounding Thomas and CFPB v. CFSA that has thus far escaped close scrutiny. It concerns Thomas’s central role in the Horatio Alger Association, an exclusive circle of wealthy business elites that gave Thomas lavish undisclosed gifts. In return, Thomas has granted the Alger Association rare annual private use of the Supreme Court chambers for its new-member induction ceremony—an event that Thomas personally hosts every year. The Alger Association has publicly promoted the Thomas-hosted Supreme Court ceremony in its fundraising materials, an act frowned upon by Court officials. According to a review of the Alger Association’s members conducted by the Revolving Door Project, at least 18 Alger members have either previously expressed an interest in weakening the CFPB or stand to gain from the Court gutting the Bureau. These wealthy elites span multiple sectors overseen by the CFPB and include some of its most prominent recurring opponents.
Though we at the Revolving Door Project called for Thomas’s and Alito’s recusal from this case in light of these ethics scandals, the Court’s well-established contempt for accountability and integrity offers little hope they will heed our advice. Should both of them persist in hearing CFPB v. CFSA on Tuesday despite their glaring conflicts of interest, the case for their impeachment and for rebalancing the Court to create an ethical majority will become even stronger.
The corporate elites and right-wing ideologues who populate the Alger Association’s membership roster clearly have a lot to gain from gutting the CFPB. Clarence Thomas has enjoyed the comically elitist connections and lavish undisclosed gifts of the Alger Association for over 30 years. Are we really to believe that Thomas never once discussed issues of financial regulation and corporate law enforcement during decades of hobnobbing with America’s top bankers, investors, and lenders behind closed doors? Please. The fact that Thomas did not fully disclose his Alger activities and gifts from the very beginning, or the other Caligula-esque largesse he has received from other billionaire patrons—all while carefully constructing an aw-shucks persona as a guy who prefers to hang out in Walmart parking lots in his RV—speaks for itself.