Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, has launched a new business to lobby for conservative causes that clearly raises questions about the impact it might have on her husband’s ability to render independent decisions. It could as a result limit his voice and vote on myriad issues before the court including election reform, health care and immigration — all matters that his wife might have an active role in advocating for or lobbying against.
She announced recently that in her new consulting position she would be tackling such conservative causes as limited government and free enterprise, using her connections to help “liberty loving citizens” raise money and increase their political impact, according to recent press reports.
The decision has set off a howl from legal ethicists who see it as having a clear possibility of becoming a serious breach of ethics for Thomas, about whom questions of impartiality were raised in 2009 when his wife founded the website Liberty Central, with strong tea party links. She has since stepped down from her leadership of that enterprise.
Not too many years back, it was difficult to find a Supreme Court justice who didn’t strive to keep clear of such entanglements. Even activities such as lecturing or speaking on current affairs or meeting with special interest groups were discouraged. Justice Antonin Scalia, however, has been severely criticized lately for meeting with tea party activists.
When potential ethical gaffes did occur in the past they brought about a swift negative reaction. Justice Abe Fortas was denied elevation to the post of chief justice of the United States after it was discovered that he had been advising President Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam and was involved in a number of other activities including paid lectures at a major university. He later was forced to resign from the court for advising a Wall Street figure who had been convicted of violating securities regulations.
Another justice, William O. Douglas, was heavily criticized when he did some work for a foundation based on a fortune made from selling restaurant furniture, much of it in mob-controlled Las Vegas. But unlike Fortas, Douglas managed to survive the criticism. Actually, Douglas’ long tenure on the court was marred by his lifestyle, which at times seemed to mirror his liberal judicial philosophy. That included multiple marriages and his open support for environmental causes.
For whatever reason, Mrs. Thomas seems oblivious to the appearance of impropriety her job might cause. She has been quoted as saying she was looking forward to lobbying Congress. Does she not understand that there is nothing before Congress that might not also end up before her husband and that her involvement might bring about a challenge to his participation in a decision? She either is naive politically or callously unconcerned about how this looks.
She made news last year by phoning her husband’s confirmation opponent of years ago, Anita Hill, and leaving a please retract and apologize message on Hill’s office phone. Hill lost no time in bringing the entire matter to the press, undoubtedly to Clarence Thomas’ embarrassment.
His wife’s latest venture could further tarnish his image.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.