Fresh off a recent controversy about his potential conflicts of interest in the Citizens United decision, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas faced new questions this week about his judicial impartiality. This time, legal ethicists raised questions about the lobby group launched recently by Thomas’ wife, Virginia.
Critics say Virginia Thomas’ activities at Liberty Consulting could easily create a conflict of interest for her husband whenever he rules on a case affecting one of his wife’s clients. And they argue Virginia Thomas’ political involvement is yet another sign of the “politicization” of the nation’s highest court.
Justice Thomas “should not be sitting on a case or reviewing a statute that his wife has lobbied for,” Monroe H. Freedman, a legal ethics expert at Hofstra Law School, told the New York Times. “If the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, that creates a perception problem.”
Virginia Thomas’ activities “show a new level of arrogance of just not caring that the court is being politicized and how that undermines the historic image of the Supreme Court as being above the political fray,” Arn Pearson, a lawyer for progressive watchdog group Common Cause, told Politico.
According to its website, Liberty Consulting is dedicated to “effective advocacy and assistance on behalf of those liberty-loving citizens and organizations who wish to preserve limited government, free enterprise, national security, individual liberty and personal responsibility.”
Virginia Thomas “plans to leverage her 30 years of experience as a Washington ‘insider’ to assist non-establishment ‘outsiders’ who share her belief in our core founding principles and values,” the website states.
In an email sent to congressional chiefs of staff last week, Thomas described herself as “a self-appointed ambassador to the freshmen class and an ambassador to the tea party movement,” Politico reported.
Thomas is indeed an “insider,” having worked as an attorney for the US Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s and a policy analyst for then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey in the 1990s, before becoming involved in the tea party movement in recent years.
It was as the head of the tea party group Liberty Central that Virginia Thomas began attracting high-profile criticism. She stepped down from the group last fall, after a public spat with Anita Hill, the lawyer who accused Thomas’ husband of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings in 1991.
Thomas sparked controversy when she demanded, in a phone call, that Hill apologize for her testimony. After Hill refused to do so, Thomas admitted it was “probably a mistake” to have made the request. She stepped down from Liberty Central soon thereafter, but denied the move had anything to do with the Hill controversy.
Common Cause last month filed a request with the Department of Justice to investigate Thomas’ role in the Citizens United ruling, arguing that the justice’s ties to conservative groups such as those run by the billionaire Koch brothers may have compromised his objectivity. The group leveled the same allegations against Justice Antonin Scalia. They hope to have the two justices disqualified from the ruling.
Justice Thomas found himself yet again at the center of unfriendly attention when it was revealed that for 13 years he had failed to report his wife’s earnings on annual disclosure forms he is required to file. Thomas amended the statements going back to 1997.
Whether or not Virginia Thomas’ latest venture will be successful remains to be seen. Politico reports a level of hostility among Republicans towards the supreme court justice’s wife, with some viewing her as an opportunist cashing in on her husband’s high-profile name.
“Ginni’s reputation around town is now even more of a fake entitled woman who is only here because of her husband,” an unnamed source told Politico.