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How Justice Thomas’s ‘Nearly Adopted Daughter’ Became His Law Clerk

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How Justice Thomas’s ‘Nearly Adopted Daughter’ Became His Law Clerk

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The email went out to members of Justice Clarence Thomas’s law clerk network late last month celebrating his newest addition to an exclusive club. The justice’s selection needed no introduction.

“Crystal Clanton’s clerkship for OT ’24 was announced by Scalia Law today!” wrote an assistant to Virginia Thomas, the justice’s wife, who is known as Ginni. The email referred to the 2024 October term of the court, and the tone was jubilant: “Please take a look at these posts of congratulations and support. Consider reposting, replying or adding your own!”

The Thomases and Ms. Clanton, a 29-year-old conservative organizer turned lawyer, have built such a close relationship that the couple informally refer to her as their “nearly adopted daughter.” Ms. Clanton, who was previously accused of sending racist text messages, including one that read “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE,” has lived in the Thomas home, assisted Ms. Thomas in her political consulting business and joined her in a “girls trip” to New York.

In 2019, at the Thomases’ urging, Ms. Clanton enrolled at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia, where Justice Thomas has taught. She received a full merit scholarship, according to another judge who later hired her.

Her upcoming Supreme Court clerkship, one of the most coveted jobs in the American legal profession, is the latest triumph in her redemption from a highly publicized 2017 controversy over the racist messages. The blowup led to her departure from a group she helped build, Turning Point USA, which seeks to increase the influence of conservative students on college campuses across the country.

For Justice Thomas’s critics, his selection of Ms. Clanton as a clerk is blatant favoritism, if not nepotism, particularly for a justice already under an ethics cloud for revelations about his gifts and travel from wealthy benefactors. To his defenders, Justice Thomas is showing admirable willingness to take in a young conservative and shield her from a firestorm of attacks for text messages that he and other supporters say were fakes designed to malign her.

Either way, his decision is another example of the justice landing himself in public controversy, this time by hiring his wife’s former employee and a virtual family member primarily known outside the justice’s circle for allegations that she sent anti-Black texts. Friends say Ms. Clanton’s hiring also reflects Justice Thomas’s sympathies to a young woman under siege, as he has been, from what he has long viewed as a sanctimonious liberal elite.

“Justice Thomas knows what a racist is,” Mark Paoletta, a close friend and frequent defender of the Thomases, wrote on social media, adding, “I will take his word and judgment any day of the week.” The justice, he added, has “survived Democrat racists in DC who have attacked him for 40 years because he does not conform to their racist demand that he must think a certain way based on color of his skin.”

The Thomases and Ms. Clanton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ethics experts say there is nothing in the Supreme Court’s new ethics code that prohibits a justice from hiring someone accused of racism, or even a close family friend. Court watchers point to other recent selections of clerks, such as Justice Elena Kagan’s decision to hire Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s daughter (although she will not start work with the justice while her father is attorney general). In the early days of the Supreme Court, justices sometimes hired their sons as law clerks to assist them with cases, and law clerks often worked out of justices’ homes.

But the federal judicial code of conduct — which the Supreme Court is not bound to follow — advises judges to avoid “favoritism” and to “exercise the power of appointment fairly and only on the basis of merit.” A 2016 advisory opinion cautioned against a judge’s giving “the appearance that someone may gain an advantage” in hiring because of the person’s “broader connections to a judge.”

“It seems clear that Justice Thomas acted improperly in hiring someone to whom he is so close that he describes her as something akin to a family member,” said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “While this hiring probably does not violate the nepotism statutes, it is the type of ‘favoritism’ prohibited by the code.”

Throughout his career, Justice Thomas has shown a preference for clerks who have overcome adversity. He has often reached beyond Ivy League law schools and looked for evidence of grit and determination.

“I like clerks from modest backgrounds,” he said in a speech a decade ago. “I’m from a modest background. I truly believe they’re special — kids who for some reason keep at it every day, in spite of the odds, get up every day. Nobody gives them a break, but they keep going.”

Ms. Clanton was raised in Gurnee, Ill., a middle-class suburb of Chicago, by her grandparents, whom she revered as role models. “They’re perfect examples of strength, grace and kindness,” she told the website futurefirstlady.com in 2015, which highlighted her as a “Weekly Conservative Woman.”

A lesser-known part of Ms. Clanton’s story is an early family tragedy. In December 1994, a few months before she was born, Ms. Clanton’s biological father, a construction worker, was acquitted by a jury on charges that he had fatally battered her 18-month-old brother, reported at the time by The Chicago Tribune. Ms. Clanton’s mother asked for a protective order against Ms. Clanton’s father, and it was granted, court documents show, when Ms. Clanton was a year old.

Years later, when Ms. Clanton was 14, her grandmother wrote in a court filing that she had raised Ms. Clanton since she was 6 months old. The court records do not shed light on the role Ms. Clanton’s mother played in her upbringing.

Ms. Clanton was an honor roll student at her high school in Gurnee, and competed in community beauty pageants and contests for future business leaders. She was always politically inclined, but fears about President Barack Obama’s election nudged her toward activism.

“I heard my family talking about all the ways Obama’s policies were going to make it harder for them to get ahead,” she said in the 2015 interview. “I thought it was unfair and I didn’t like the direction Obama wanted our country to go, so I decided to do something about it.”

That something was joining Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, a young conservative activist, out of his parents’ house in the Chicago suburbs. Ms. Clanton was an active member through her college years at Marquette University in Wisconsin. She became national field director, appeared on Fox News, made inroads at other universities and wrote several articles for an affiliated website, including “5 Things Hillary Really Said.

The rise of Donald J. Trump supercharged the group. Mr. Kirk became a political sensation as the organization attracted some of the biggest names in the conservative world. Among them was Ms. Thomas, a Turning Point advisory board member, who in the summer of 2016 delivered a speech to more than 400 conservative women at the group’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit in Dallas.

It is unclear when Ms. Clanton first met Ms. Thomas, but the two likely would have crossed paths at the summit, which Ms. Clanton helped organize.

By then she was on a rise of her own. Ms. Clanton had become the top lieutenant to Mr. Kirk, who in a February 2016 post on Twitter, now X, lavished her with praise. He shared a picture of a packed room of organizers and wrote: “See this? This was created thanks to” Ms. Clanton and “her amazing leadership. Without her, there is no TPUSA.” That fall, Ms. Clanton was quoted in a Time magazine article titled “The GOP’s Young-Women Whisperers,”

But by the summer of 2017, she was gone from Turning Point.

A clue to her departure came in December that year. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reported that Ms. Clanton had sent text messages to another Turning Point employee, including the racist one with profanity.

Ms. Clanton, who would have been about 20 when the messages were sent, told The New Yorker that she did not recall the messages.

Mr. Kirk told the magazine that “Turning Point assessed the situation and took decisive action within 72 hours of being made aware of the issue.” Since then, Ms. Clanton has not spoken publicly on the issue, possibly because of a confidentiality agreement she has with Turning Point. But Mr. Kirk has adjusted his account, and asserted that Ms. Clanton was the victim of a former Turning Point employee who created fake text messages to smear her. Mr. Kirk and Turning Point have not publicly provided evidence for that assertion.

In the explosive aftermath of the text messages, Ms. Thomas told her husband “of the horrible way” Ms. Clanton had been treated at Turning Point, Justice Thomas wrote in a 2021 letter, “and asked that she be allowed to live with us.”

The justice — who had been through his own media firestorm in his confirmation hearings when Anita Hill, a former subordinate, accused him of earlier sexual harassment — agreed to take in Ms. Clanton. “And she lived with us for almost a year,” he wrote.

It was not easy at first. In the beginning, Ms. Clanton “was understandably distraught and depressed” and “felt overwhelmed and was ready to give up,” the justice wrote. “It was excruciating to watch her suffer so deeply, not knowing how to erase the smear or show that her life was not over.” She was also facing, Justice Thomas wrote, the terminal illness of her grandmother, who was “not expected to live another year.” (Ms. Clanton’s grandmother died in April 2018.)

Ms. Clanton worked for Ms. Thomas as a project manager at her political firm, Liberty Consulting. She handled data, helped clients and assisted nonprofits. In May 2019, Ms. Thomas hinted at her protégée’s progress. “She’s the wind in my sails,” Ms. Thomas said in a speech to the Council for National Policy, asking Ms. Clanton to stand for recognition.

By then Ms. Clanton had applied to the Scalia Law School. Renamed in 2016 in honor of Justice Antonin Scalia as part of a $30 million deal with conservative donors, the school has built close ties with Supreme Court justices, including Justice Thomas, who has taught there in recent years.

Ms. Clanton started at the school in the fall of 2019. It is unclear whether she was still living with the Thomases at that point, but the school was only a half-hour from their home and Ms. Clanton was as close as ever to the couple. They listed her on their family page in an annual printed clerk directory as their “nearly adopted daughter,” and prominently featured her in photos in the Thomases’ annual Christmas letters. During the “girls trip” to New York, Ms. Clanton joined the group at Broadway shows and in singing karaoke.

In the meantime, Justice Thomas set in motion the chess moves for a Supreme Court clerkship. In Ms. Clanton’s second year, he reached out to Judge William H. Pryor Jr., chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta. Judge Pryor has sent roughly two dozen clerks to the Supreme Court, mainly to conservative justices.

Justice Thomas told Judge Pryor, the judge later recounted in a letter, that “like him, Crystal had overcome a lot of adversity early in life to go to and succeed in law school.” The justice told him, he wrote, that “there had been false media reports” about her and that the stories were “contrary to his assessment of her character.”

Judge Pryor had already hired clerks for the year, but he recommended two lower-court judges who both offered Ms. Clanton clerkships. She chose Judge Corey L. Maze, a Trump appointee to Federal District Court in Alabama, and went to work for him after her graduation from law school in May 2022. (In the Thomases’ holiday newsletter that December, Ms. Clanton was featured in a swearing-in photo with the caption “Admitted to the AL bar,” and in a cap-and-gown portrait as “Crystal Clanton (near daughter).”

The next year she went to work for Judge Pryor, a high-profile jurist whose decision to hire her reignited the text message controversy. Democratic lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee, led by Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, raised concerns that someone accused of racism would be so highly placed in the court system. They demanded an investigation into the hiring decisions by both Judge Pryor and Judge Maze.

“These two federal judges hired an individual with a widely reported pattern of racist and bigoted conduct,” the lawmakers wrote in a November 2021 letter to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judge Charles Wilson, who was then the most senior active judge on the 11th Circuit. “In the eyes of the public, she will be one of these judges’ closest advisers with special access to the judicial decision-making process.”

Judge Pryor defended his decision in a letter to Judge Wilson. Ms. Clanton, he said, was “highly qualified,” had received a full merit scholarship to law school, was “in the top 5 percent of her class and received the top grade in a summer course taught by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.”

A law school spokesman declined to answer questions about Ms. Clanton’s tenure at the school, citing student privacy laws.

(Judge Pryor’s letter was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The letter Justice Thomas wrote describing how Ms. Clanton came to live with them, which he sent to the same judge, was also obtained by the Atlanta paper. )

Judge Debra Ann Livingston, who investigated the matter, said she did not find evidence that the judges had engaged in misconduct, concluded they had done proper due diligence and dismissed the matter. After further review by federal judges, the inquiry was officially closed in October 2023.

In the fall, Ms. Clanton will join three other clerks for Justice Thomas as he begins his 34th term on the court.

Jodi Kantor contributed reporting, and Julie Tate contributed research.



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