Judge Pryor cleared of allegations involving hiring of controversial clerk

Bill Pryor, chief judge of the federal appeals court in Atlanta, has been cleared of allegations of wrongdoing in that he hired a law clerk accused of sending racist and xenophobic texts.

After seven members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to investigate the matter, the court referred the complaint to the federal appeals court in New York. On Thursday, that court’s judicial council voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint. It upheld a decision issued Dec. 22 by its chief judge, Debra Ann Livingston.

The law clerk in question is Crystal Clanton, a student at George Mason University’s law school. After graduating, she first will work this year as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Corey Maze in Alabama and then for Pryor in 2023. Maze was also named in the lawmakers’ complaint.

Pryor, the former Alabama attorney general who was appointed to the 11th Circuit by President George W. Bush, and Maze both declined to comment on the court’s ruling.

According to published reports, 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.

Neither Livingston’s ruling nor the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision identified Clanton or the two judges, Pryor and Maze. But their identities were disclosed in letters Pryor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote to the court on Clanton’s behalf.

In her ruling, Livingston cited one of the Turning Point USA’s executives who said Clanton treated everyone with “kindness, respect and fairness.” This person also said “the media reports are not accurate,” Livingston wrote.

Credit: Columbia University

Credit: Columbia University

The Turning Point executive “had determined that the source of the allegations against (Clanton) was a group of former employees,” Livingston wrote. “One of these employees was fired after the organization learned that this person had created fake text messages to be used against co-workers, to make it appear that those co-workers had engaged in misconduct when they had not.”

Pryor and Maze knew about the allegations against Clanton when they interviewed and hired her. And both determined the allegations of racist behavior by Clanton were untrue and found she was highly qualified to serve as a clerk for them, Livingston wrote.

“There is nothing in the record to dispute any of this,” she noted.

The “undisputed record,” Livingston added, shows that Pryor and Maze “performed all the due diligence that a responsible judge would undertake.”

In a statement issued Friday, Johnson, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, called the decision “nothing more than a rubber stamp that gives two influential federal judges cover for hiring a law clerk with a reported history of racist conduct. ... This cannot be the end of this matter.”

In his letter, Pryor wrote, “The complaint against me alleges, without any evidence, that I either failed to investigate this scurrilous accusation or that I knowingly hired someone who had engaged in racist behavior. It saddens me that any member of Congress would make such an unfounded accusation against a federal judge or smear the reputation of an innocent law student.”

In his letter, Thomas said he and his wife took in the distraught Clanton after she left Turning Point USA. She lived in their home for almost a year, the justice said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

“I know Crystal Clanton and I know bigotry,” Thomas wrote. “Bigotry is antithetical to her nature and character.”

Thomas, who said he recommended to Pryor that he hire Clanton as a law clerk, added, “We have reached a sorry state of affairs when a young adult can be indelibly marked with today’s ‘scarlet letter’ of defamation. This is especially true in the judiciary.”

In his letter, Pryor said Thomas told him that Clanton “was a victim of a pernicious attempt to portray her as a racist.” Thomas also said Turning Point USA had conducted an internal investigation and found that a “rogue employee” had compromised the accounts of several co-workers.

After discovering this, Turning Point fired that employee, Thomas said.

The reason Clanton never spoke out against the allegations is because she is bound by a non-disclosure agreement with her former employer, Pryor wrote. Upon learning this, Pryor said, he reached out to Charlie Kirk, founder and executive director of Turning Point, and asked him to explain what had happened.

In his letter to the court, Pryor quoted a passage from a letter Kirk had sent to him in response.

“The media has alleged that Crystal said and did things that are simply untrue,” Kirk wrote. “I have first-hand knowledge of the situations reported on and I can assure that the media has made serious errors and omissions. The sources of these reports are a group of former employees that have a well-documented desire to malign Crystal’s reputation.”

The employee who was fired had “created fake text messages to be used against other employees,” Kirk wrote.

In their letter, the seven members of Congress, including House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, said it appeared Pryor and Maze had violated the code of judicial conduct by hiring a law clerk “with a history of nakedly racist and hateful conduct.”

Taking on Clanton as a law clerk “threatens to seriously undermine the public’s faith in the judiciary,” the lawmakers wrote. It also raises the question whether Pryor and Maze could be impartial “in cases where race, religion or national origin plays a role.”

In his response, Pryor said that “reckless charge is both outrageous and meritless. The complaint offers no credible evidence to suggest that I violated the code, and my record of public service proves that I abhor invidious discrimination.”