Judicial committee to investigate hiring of controversial law clerk

Judge Bill Pryor speaks in Washington in November 2016. (Cliff Owen / AP file)

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Judge Bill Pryor speaks in Washington in November 2016. (Cliff Owen / AP file)

A special committee will investigate the hiring of a law clerk by the chief judge of the federal appeals court in Atlanta in light of allegations the clerk had sent racist and xenophobic texts, a judicial panel ruled Friday.

Chief Judge Bill Pryor of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was cleared in January of any misconduct by the federal appeals court in New York, which was assigned to look into the issue. But the Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee, composed of seven judges from across the country, said more investigation is needed.

The law clerk hired by Pryor to work for him in 2023 is Crystal Clanton. According to a 2017 story in the New Yorker, Clanton, while working as national field director for a conservative student group, sent a colleague a text message that read, “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like (expletive) them all.” She also allegedly sent text messages demeaning Muslims.

The New Yorker article quoted Clanton as saying, “I have no recollection of these messages and they do not reflect what I believe or who I am and the same was true when I was a teenager.”

At the time, Clanton was working for Turning Point USA. After leaving that group and after the allegations surfaced, Clanton lived with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, for almost a year.

Thomas wrote a letter on Clanton’s behalf to the appeals court in Atlanta.

“I certainly know bigotry,” the justice wrote. “Bigotry is antithetical to her nature and character. She is a good and decent young woman who has had to overcome some challenging difficulties in life only to be smeared by others who would collapse if this happened to their own children.”

Pryor also wrote to the court, saying he was aware of the allegations when he hired Clanton and found them to be false after he looked into the matter. He said he reached out to Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk, who replied that the allegations “are simply untrue.”

Kirk said he had “first-hand knowledge” of what happened and said Clanton was the victim of a fellow employee who had “created fake text messages to be used against other employees.” That other employee was fired, Kirk added.

After the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York cleared Pryor, several members of Congress asked the Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee to order an investigation.

In its decision, the judicial committee noted there are individuals with knowledge of what happened who apparently were never interviewed by the 2nd Circuit court. One of these is a former coworker of Clanton’s who claimed to have received the offensive message. Another is a former employer who alleged she was the only Black employee of Turning Point and was fired by Clanton on Martin Luther King Day.

“As a result, key issues are reasonably in dispute and must be resolved,” the judicial committee said. “Because a special committee was not appointed to investigate the complaints, there is not enough information in the record to determine how the matter should be concluded.”

At a minimum, the judicial panel said, there should be an attempt to interview Clanton and the witnesses who have been identified to have first-hand knowledge of the events in question.

The judicial panel’s decision also applies to U.S. District Judge Corey Maze in Alabama. He hired Clanton to work as his law clerk this year.