The revelation this week that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSenators should ask Biden’s SCOTUS nominee about judicial code of conduct Wife of Clarence Thomas says she attended Jan. 6 ‘Stop the Steal’ rally Supreme Court denies GOP requests to halt new maps in NC, Pennsylvania MORE, attended the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol has renewed questions about Justice Thomas’s impartiality.
Critics say the new detail is just the latest example of Ginni’s political activity posing an ethically troubling overlap with her husband’s judicial position.
“Virginia Thomas should be able to back whatever causes motivate her. The problem is that Justice Thomas continues to participate in cases related to her political activities,” said Steven Lubet, a professor of legal ethics at Northwestern University Law School. “He is the one whose conduct should be questioned.”
Judges on lower federal courts are bound by a code of conduct that requires recusal for conflicts of interest, or even if their impartiality might be reasonably questioned. But Supreme Court justices are permitted to decide for themselves whether or not recusal is appropriate in a given case.
In Justice Thomas’s three decades on the bench, he has never stepped aside from a case due to a real or perceived conflict of interest resulting from his wife’s political activities, according to letter sent this month to Justice Thomas by several progressive groups, including the court expansion advocacy group Take Back the Court.
“It is striking that in more than 30 years on the Supreme Court you have never — not once — recused yourself from a case because of a conflict of interest presented by professional political activities of your wife, a prominent Republican strategist who has been involved in some of the most controversial matters to come before the Court,” the March 8 letter states.
The Supreme Court’s public information office did not respond to a request for comment.
The previously unknown detail about Ginni Thomas’s participation in the pro-Trump rally emerged from an interview she gave to the conservative media outlet Washington Free Beacon.
Thomas told the outlet she attended the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse but got cold and left before former President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-West Virginia legislator pleads guilty in Jan. 6 case Trump to hold April rally in Michigan Trump mulls rescinding endorsement of Brooks in Alabama Senate race MORE took the stage at noon. Dubbed “Stop the Steal,” the event promoted Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election, which fueled the deadly insurrection later that day.
“I was disappointed and frustrated that there was violence that happened following a peaceful gathering of Trump supporters on the Ellipse on Jan. 6,” Thomas told the outlet. “There are important and legitimate substantive questions about achieving goals like electoral integrity, racial equality, and political accountability that a democratic system like ours needs to be able to discuss and debate rationally in the political square. I fear we are losing that ability.”
Ethical scrutiny of the justice and his spouse has waxed and waned over the years. A prominent example arose from the court’s 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore that handed the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
At the time that Justice Thomas cast a decisive vote for Bush, Ginni Thomas worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, where she was recruiting personnel to staff a future Bush administration.
More ethical questions grew out of the Supreme Court’s review in 2017 of Trump’s policy banning inbound travel from several Muslim-majority countries. From 2017 to 2018, Ginni Thomas’s consulting firm received more than $200,000 from the Center For Security Policy, whose president filed an amicus brief in the case that urged the justices to uphold the ban.
When the case was decided in summer 2018, Thomas cast a decisive vote in the 5-4 ruling upholding the Trump administration’s travel restriction.
The latest entanglement to draw headlines related to the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot and subsequent investigation by the House select committee.
In addition to attending the “Stop the Steal” rally, Ginni Thomas was one of roughly five dozen activists to sign a letter in December to top House Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthySupport in both parties grows for providing air power to Ukraine GOP leader says Republicans will boot Schiff from Intel panel McCarthy calls out Cawthorn over Zelensky: ‘Madison is wrong’ MORE (Calif.) urging him to remove outspoken Trump critics Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerEx-RNC chairman blasts Trump: ‘Not fit to lead this nation’ Kinzinger calls out Gabbard for Russian misinformation Kinzinger: My ‘biggest regret’ was voting against first Trump impeachment MORE (R-Ill.) and Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyEx-RNC chairman blasts Trump: ‘Not fit to lead this nation’ Watch: Weekend stories you might have missed Will the US continue to play a leadership role? MORE (R-Wyo.) from the Jan. 6 panel.
The following month, Justice Thomas raised eyebrows as the only justice who indicated that he would have granted Trump’s request to block a trove of his administration’s records from being handed to the House committee investigating the circumstances of the Jan. 6 attack.
Critics say that in light of his wife’s political activities, Thomas should have recused himself from that case and future matters tied to the Jan. 6 attack.
“The clear conflict of interest was driven home by the fact that you were the only member of the Supreme Court to side with Trump by publicly dissenting from the Court’s decision to allow the Committee to obtain the records in dispute,” read Take Back The Court’s letter sent to Justice Thomas this month.
“That case is unlikely to be the last case related to the January 6 insurrection that will come before the Court,” it continued. “We ask that you recuse yourself from any future involvement in any such cases.”
In the Washington Free Beacon article published Monday, Ginni Thomas pushed back on the notion that her political involvement has any bearing on her husband’s work.
“Like so many married couples, we share many of the same ideals, principles, and aspirations for America,” she said. “But we have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too. Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work.”
But according to Gabe Roth, executive director of the left-leaning court-reform advocacy group Fix The Court, it would be fair to say that “a reasonable person might question Justice Thomas’s impartiality” given what he described as a years-long pattern.
“I don’t think Ginni is the be all, end all of problems,” said Roth, an advocate for a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices. “But if it’s making folks pay closer attention to these issues, that might not be the worst thing, especially since we know Clarence is probably not going to change his tune on any of this.”