The latest in a recent string of ethical questions at the U.S. Supreme Court involves a Maine attorney who has represented former President Donald Trump in legal battles over his tax returns.

Patrick Strawbridge, who lives in North Yarmouth, is one of several lawyers who sent money to an aide to Justice Clarence Thomas just months before Strawbridge argued Trump’s case before the Supreme Court, according to an investigation published Wednesday in The Guardian.

Patrick Strawbridge

Strawbridge and six other attorneys sent payments to Thomas’ aide, Rajan Vasisht, on the app Venmo in November and December 2019, according to the report. Their purposes were listed as “Christmas party,” “Thomas Christmas Party” and other similar phrases. The value of the payments was not public. According to the Guardian, Vashisht changed his account settings to hide records of the transactions after a reporter contacted him.

Strawbridge did not respond to a voicemail left Wednesday asking to discuss the payments.

It is not clear whether the attorneys were paying for entrance to a party, helping to fund the event or merely covering their own costs – a distinction that legal ethics experts say could make all the difference when determining whether Thomas violated ethical standards by accepting the payments.

“There is nothing improper about judges socializing with lawyers, including lawyers who have cases before those judges, and nothing intrinsically improper about friends pitching in to cover the costs of a Christmas party,” Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh said in an email Wednesday. “But for a justice who no longer enjoys the benefit of the doubt, it provokes follow-up questions: How much money did the lawyers contribute, and did it exceed what was needed to cover the cost of the party?… Did the justice accept the payments unsolicited, under circumstances in which the lawyers were giving the justice gifts to ingratiate themselves? Or were these simply longtime buddies passing the hat so they could have their Christmas party?”


Strawbridge was Thomas’ clerk in 2008.

By Christmas 2019, Strawbridge and one of his partners at the prominent conservative law firm Consovoy McCarthy already had petitioned the Supreme Court to block both a New York District Attorney and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform from obtaining years of Trump’s personal financial records. Less than five months later, he made oral arguments in the latter case before Thomas and the rest of the Supreme Court from his home in North Yarmouth. It was his first time arguing a case before the Supreme Court.

Seven justices agreed that the House could in some circumstances issue a subpoena for the president’s records and sent the case back to a lower court for further evaluation. Thomas dissented; he agreed with Strawbridge’s argument that Congress had no right to demand Trump’s private documents.

Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

Last October, Strawbridge again argued before the court, this time representing a group claiming race-conscious admissions at the University of North Carolina violated the 14th Amendment. Earlier this month, Thomas ruled with the 6-3 majority in that case and struck down affirmative action programs in college admissions.

As recent major conservative legal victories like the overturning of Roe v. Wade have reshaped American life, several members of the Supreme Court have come under fire for what critics call lax ethical standards. A ProPublica investigation detailed Thomas’ failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of luxury vacations and school tuition paid for by his close friend Harlan Crow, a Republican megadonor. Justices John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor have all since faced criticism for failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest or for other ethics issues.

The court, which has not adopted the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges and instead largely makes its own rules, has pushed back against outside pressure to reform. In April, Roberts declined an invitation to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the court’s ethical standards.


While both the court’s liberal and conservative justices have maintained that they can operate independently of outside influence, ethics experts like Geyh warn that the growing number of accusations of impropriety could wear away at the public’s trust in the institution.

“Some accusations are more serious than others,” he said. “But the cumulative effect is to create an atmosphere in which folks are apt to assume the worst.”

Legal experts in the Guardians’ story – Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W Bush administration and has been a vocal critic of the role of dark money in politics, and Kedric Payne, the general counsel and senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center – echoed Geyh’s concern that the payments raised red flags.

“A federal government employee collecting money from lawyers for any reason … I don’t see how that works,” Painter said.

Like Geyh, Payne also noted that it is possible that the attorneys who gave money were paying for their own party expenses, and not for Thomas, but said “the point remains that the public is owed an explanation so they don’t have to speculate.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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