Activism of Thomas’s Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues
For three decades, Mrs. Thomas has been a familiar figure among conservative activists in Washington — since before she met her husband of 23 years, Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court. But this year she has emerged in her most politically prominent role yet: Mrs. Thomas is the founder and head of a new nonprofit group, Liberty Central, dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist “tyranny” of President Obama and Democrats in Congress and to “protecting the core founding principles” of the nation.
It is the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation’s highest court, and Mrs. Thomas is just getting started. “Liberty Central will be bigger than the Tea Party movement,” she told Fox News in April, at a Tea Party rally in
But to some people who study judicial ethics, Mrs. Thomas’s activism is raising knotty questions, in particular about her acceptance of large, unidentified contributions for
Mrs. Thomas, known as Ginni, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed without an agreement not to discuss her husband. In written responses to questions, Sarah Field,
Nonprofit groups with political agendas like Liberty Central are operating in this election cycle under evolving legal and regulatory standards, most notably the ruling last January by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which eased restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. In that case, Justice Thomas, long an advocate of dismantling campaign finance restrictions, was in the 5-to-4 majority. Wealthy individuals and some corporations, emboldened by the ruling, are giving to such groups to influence the election but still hide their tracks.
Unlike many other conservative nonprofit groups that are pouring donations into television advertising to benefit Republican candidates,
The bigger question for many is how she is financing these activities.
A federal law requires justices to recuse themselves in a number of circumstances where real or perceived conflicts of interest could arise, including in cases where their spouses could have a financial interest. But the decision to step aside is up to each justice; there is no appeal from the nation’s highest court.
“It’s shocking that you would have a Supreme Court justice sitting on a case that might implicate in a very fundamental way the interests of someone who might have contributed to his wife’s organization,” said Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor and director of the Stanford University Center on the Legal Profession.
“The fact that we can’t find that out is the first problem,” she said, adding, “And how can the public form a judgment about propriety if it doesn’t have the basic underlying facts?”
Steven Lubet, who teaches legal ethics at Northwestern Law School, said Mrs. Thomas’s solicitation of big contributions raised potential recusal issues for her husband. But he added, “There’s no reason to think that Justice Thomas would be anything other than extremely careful about it.”
“I think this is the world we live in, where two-career families are the norm and there are no constraints on the political activities of judicial spouses,” Mr. Lubet said.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said: “There’s nothing to stop Ginni Thomas from being politically active. She’s a private citizen and she has all of her constitutional rights.”
But as for the big donors, Mr. Gillers, citing a 1988 Supreme Court decision, said, “She has to tell him because the public is going to assume he knows,” and, Mr. Gillers said, fair-minded citizens could question Justice Thomas’s objectivity as a result.
The Supreme Court’s public information office said Mrs. Thomas had told court officials of her plans but it declined to provide any more information.
“Around the time of the launch of
In past interviews, Mrs. Thomas has suggested she is being singled out unfairly; other spouses of judges are politically active, she has argued, usually mentioning Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who is married to a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Mr. Rendell has to disclose direct contributions to his campaigns. And parties can appeal to the Supreme Court should his wife not recuse herself when her impartiality is questioned.
Mrs. Thomas’s political work has drawn criticism before from Democrats. In the weeks before a 5-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court, including her husband, decided the 2000 election for George W. Bush over Al Gore, Mrs. Thomas was compiling résumés for potential appointees to a Bush administration from her job at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Republican-leaning research group.
Mrs. Thomas’s supporters said she plays an important role as a bridge between grass-roots Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans in
“She’s been there for a long time, but she hasn’t been corrupted by it,” Mr. Hecker said. So she can be “a medium” to get the grass-roots’ views “to the people that matter.”
Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.
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