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Virginia Thomas Now Lobbying Members Of Congress, So What?

She may have stepped aside as the public face of the Tea Party group Liberty Central, but Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is now taking on a new political role that is sure to raise some eyebrows:

She started as a congressional aide in the 1980s, became a midlevel Republican operative, then briefly left politics, reemerging in 2009 as founder of a tea party group, before stepping down amid ‘continued questions about whether her actions were appropriate for the spouse of a Supreme Court justice.

Now, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, has recast herself yet again, this time as the head of a firm, Liberty Consulting, which boasts on its website using her “experience and connections” to help clients “with “governmental affairs efforts” and political donation strategies.

Thomas already has met with nearly half of the 99 GOP freshmen in the House and Senate, according to an e-mail she sent last week to congressional chiefs of staff, in which she branded herself “a self-appointed, ambassador to the freshmen class and an ambassador to the tea party movement.”

But her latest career incarnation is sparking controversy again.

(…)

Even among congressional Republicans, with whom Thomas boasts she has close ties, the reaction to the entreaties from her new firm, Liberty Consulting ranged from puzzlement to annoyance, with a senior House Republican aide who provided Thomas’s e-mail to POLITICO, blasting her for trying to “cash in” on her ties to the tea party movement.

Freshman Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) — who courted tea party activists and who was endorsed by Liberty Central, the tea party nonprofit group she headed until December — was unaware of Thomas’s new effort.

“This is the spouse of Justice Thomas?” he said, when asked by POLITICO on Tuesday about her outreach. “No, I’ve never met her. It’s not something I’ve heard about. And I hang out with a lot of freshman,” he said.

Thomas isn’t the only politically active spouse of a member of the Judiciary, but this new role does raise a few eyebrows and is, to say the least, a bit unusual even under today’s standards. Nonetheless, as Eugene Volokh pointed out back in October when this first came up,  there really isn’t anything unusual or improper about this:

Justice Thomas is not the only judge to have had a spouse in a prominent political role. Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s wife, Ramona Ripston, has just stepped down from being head of the Southern California ACLU. Third Circuit Judge Jane Roth’s husband was a U.S. Senator; Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell’s husband is a governor. So I’m not sure that there’s really a judicial norm that judge’s spouses should stay out of politics, whether partisan politics, advocacy group politics, or public interest litigation (itself a form of politics, at least when done effectively).

And while the matter hasn’t to my knowledge arisen as to the U.S. Supreme Court, that might have chiefly been a matter of small numbers and the recency of women’s substantial participation in politics, rather than of any consciously accepted norm. All but three Supreme Court Justices have been men. Until recently, women haven’t been involved either in partisan or ideological politics at nearly the level we see now. And it makes sense that of the few male Justices who have served during an era when men their age have wives who might be interested in politics, only one has had a wife who was indeed interesting in that sort of thing. At the circuit judge level, the numbers are just much greater, as are the numbers of female judges whose husbands are interested in politics.

What we have here is the inevitable result of the growing equality of women, the resulting growing tendency of lawyers to marry lawyers (and lawyers are disproportionately likely to go into politics), and the general tendency of people to marry others like them. It makes sense that many judges these days are women whose husbands are of the profession, social class, and cast of mind that makes them want to go into politics. It makes sense that many male judges have wives who are likewise likely to be interested in politics. And of course since spouses are supposed to help each other (and much such help is entirely legitimate), the success of one may yield more opportunities for the other.

Nor does this strike me as particularly pernicious or dangerous: Judges have plenty of political and ideological predispositions that they bring to the job from their earlier lives, and of course they have judicial philosophies that often make them in sync with particular political groups. That too is inevitable, and the fact that a spouse (or a child) has a high-profile political position doesn’t add much, I think, to those existing predispositions. In particular, I don’t think that the desire to remove any such mild additional influence of the judges justifies limiting the lives of the judge’s spouses and children. Virginia Thomas, like Ramona Ripston, should be free to go where her beliefs and talents take her, without having her spouse’s job cripple those ambitions.

The usual suspects on the left will jump on this in due time, I’m sure, but this really strikes me as much ado about nothing.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    The question is whether or not he will recuse himself from cases where she has a paid interest. It also highlights the fact that he neglected to report her lobbying income on his disclosure. Was it because she was lobbying for clients that should have caused him to recuse himself?

    Doug is right, there may be nothing there. But transparency is a must in this. His actions in this regard have served to generate suspicion, not clear anything up.

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  2. Jay Tea says:

    I agree that transparency is critical here, but it must be acknowledged that she has taken no appointed position, signed no papers, made no agreements, agreed to forfeit any of her rights simply because of what her spouse does.

    Anyone else having 1993 flashbacks, and Hillary Clinton thoughts?

    J.

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  3. mantis says:

    I seriously doubt Thomas’s activities have any impact on her husbands judicial rulings.

    That said, it’s more than a little classless to have a supreme court justice’s wife run around calling the president a tyrant. If it were, say, Justice Breyer’s wife, the right would call for Breyer’s impeachment all day, every day.

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  4. mantis says:

    The question is whether or not he will recuse himself from cases where she has a paid interest.

    Fat chance. He won’t even recuse himself when one of the litigating parties is his former employer (Monsanto).

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  5. ponce says:

    What an embarrassment these two are.

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  6. anjin-san says:

    > Anyone else having 1993 flashbacks, and Hillary Clinton thoughts?

    Who was Hillary Clinton getting paid by in 1993?

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  7. AS says:

    Why can’t she be bothered to register herself properly as a lobbyist like everyone else in her profession? The law applies to her, too.

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  8. Herb says:

    I don’t have a problem with Ginni Thomas lobbying Congress because her husband sits on the Supreme Court. I have a problem with Ginni Thomas lobbying Congress because she’s an idiot.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    I honestly don’t know what to do about these situations. I don’t like it one bit. It creates conflicts of interest, or at least that appearance. But the fact of the matter is that the spouses of high powered people tend to themselves have high powered jobs in today’s world. That’s by and large a good thing. But not an unalloyed good.

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  10. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t see that we have any right to try and stop it, certainly. Spouses are people, too.

    But anyone who thinks husbands and wives don’t affect each other’s judgments is either single, dishonest or not very self-aware.

    My wife’s enemies are my enemies, my friends are her friends, we have each other’s backs and we are inside the bubble while everyone else is outside.

    Once upon a time I trusted someone who reassured me they were behind a Chinese wall of separation from competing interests in the same company. That mistake cost me more money than I want to think about. Everything in life is personal, and almost no one is capable of the self-awareness and discipline required to screen out personal influences.

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  11. jwest says:

    Someone as unpretentious and nice as Ginni Thomas should be our next Ambassador to Luxembourg. It might help repair the damage.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    James, I agree that it is a difficult situation, and one in which certain partisans are going to believe, or profess to believe, a conflict of interest no matter how ethically you try to behave. With that said, there are still guidelines you should follow. And I think both Clarence and Virginia Thomas are playing awfully close to the edge. I don’t know they have gone over, but they certainly are giving out bad signals.
    1) Not declaring his wife’s lobbying income on his disclosure. We now know about one source of income, but are there others? We certainly can’t trust what he says about it.
    2) Not registering as a lobbyist (?) I hadn’t heard this before but saw it in a comment above. If true, that is a legal as well as an ethical problem.
    3) Given that she may be violating federal law in #2 or some other way, what federal government agency will go after her? After all, they will be making an enemy of a supreme court justice. And, like or loath Thomas, there can be no question he holds a grudge.

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  13. jwest says:

    Doing something that causes “Raising eyebrows” apparently depends on which side of the aisle someone is on.

    It’s not as if a hospital created a special job paying hundreds of thousands per year for her after her husband got his position. That would raise eyebrows on one side, but would be perfectly explainable – unless the position evaporated after she left.

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  14. sam says:

    “But anyone who thinks husbands and wives don’t affect each other’s judgments is either single, dishonest or not very self-aware.”

    My wife and I have reached an understanding. I make all the major decisions: Should we continue aid to Israel; should we means test Medicare and Social Security; should we raise or lower taxes; and so on. She makes all the little decisions: Where we live; how I dress; what our new car will be; and so on.

    Works for us.

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  15. I am with James: there is simply something untoward about the situation given what SCOTUS is and what it is does. To have the spouse of a Justice engaged in lobbying just seems problematic (made moreso by the lack of disclosure noted about and blogged about here a while back).

    Although, like James, I don’t know what yo do about it.

    And Michael is certainly right about the influence issue

    My wife’s enemies are my enemies, my friends are her friends, we have each other’s backs and we are inside the bubble while everyone else is outside

    Indeed.

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  16. sam says:

    From her consulting company’s website:

    Liberty Consulting, Inc. uses experience and connections to help conservatives inside and outside of government have greater impact.

    Management
    Liberty Consulting offers strategic advice on managing issues, projects or coalitions.

    Strategy
    Liberty Consulting offers advice for short or long term projects and bringing resources to bear for impact — whether it includes a short term bill-reading project, assistance on congressional oversight efforts or an effective coalition for impact. Additionally, Liberty Consulting offers advice on optimizing political investments for charitable giving in the non-profit world or political causes.

    Public Affairs
    Liberty Consulting gives voice to principled citizens and the tea party movement in the halls of Congress through governmental affairs efforts.

    Dave Weigel puts it this way:

    “So you can hire Ginni Thomas to help determine whether a bill will pass constitutional muster if it comes before, you know, her husband.”

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  17. steve says:

    i have debated this at Volkh’s place several times. I think this is wrong, especially for judges. If the spouse of a politician is politically active, there are potential conflicts of interest, but the politician is already elected with a known bias. I think it is much more of an issue when it is the spouse of a judge involved. If the judiciary wants me to think that are being impartial and just interpreting the law, than act that way. To essentially be lobbied non-stop by one’s spouse is not acceptable. It means that social gatherings and friendships will also influence decisions. If you want to be a Supreme Court Justice, then act like one. If you want to have your spouse lobbying or actively engaged in politics, step down. Otherwise, don’t even try to pretend like you are impartial and just interpreting the law.

    This should go for all judges, at all levels and for all parties.

    Steve

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  18. sam says:

    “JT, I wonder which bothers them most here. A: Thomas is a black conservative. B. Thomas has a white wife. Which do you think?”

    Zelsdorfian asshattery in full bloom.

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  19. [...] Virginia Thomas Now Lobbying Members Of Congress, So What? (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  20. Gustopher says:

    Ginni Thomas has every right to hold whatever legal job she wants to — be it a lobbyist, head of a think tank, or a short order cook. This doesn’t matter. When her husband accepted a position on the Supreme Court, he was not restricting her career choices.

    But, a Justice does have an obligation to maintain transparency in these matters, and to avoid conflicts of interest. If they can not, or will not, disclose potential conflicts of interest, than they should resign (or be impeached). If they can not, or will not, recuse themself when they have a conflict of interest, than they should resign (or be impeached).

    The more Ginni Thomas lobbies, the more she limits her husband’s ability to do his job. But, the problem isn’t Ginni Thomas, it is Clarence Thomas — he has not disclosed potential conflicts of interest, nor has he made a habit of recusing himself.

    I don’t care how the Thomases balance their lives — whether she avoids explicitly partisan positions, or whether he recuses himself. How they run their marriage and lives is up to them. But, there is definitely the appearance that Clarence Thomas is not living up to his responsibilities as a federal Judge.

    There should be congressional investigations, and if there are violations, he should be impeached and convicted.

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  21. [...] over at Outside the Beltway, fresh complaints are being raised about the politically related activities of Virginia Thomas, wife of the Supreme [...]

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  22. steve says:

    “So Steve, I guess the solution is if you are married to a judge you cannot have an opinion and you give up your rights as a citizen.”

    She can do whatever she wants. The issue is not her, but rather her husband. If she wants to be a political lobbyist or activist, then he should give up his job if he wants me to believe that he is ruling on an impartial basis. If he wants me to believe that he makes his rulings based upon his political philosophy or that of his wife, then he should keep his judge position. This should apply to all judges.

    Of course the system is so far gone, that this is thought of as an extreme POV. People just deny that the spouse will have any influence on the judge. They assert that somehow the judge will be able to keep this separate. Nonsense! People pay huge amounts of money just to be able to talk with politicians. In this case, we have a judge for life and a spouse who has lifetime access for what others would pay huge sums.

    Would a spouse have influence if they were not a lobbyist? Sure, but then they would not be a paid professional. Someone whose job it is to influence others based upon their ideology. If a judge was married to the CEO of IBM, I would expect the judge to not make rulings involving IBM. If a judge married to a lobbyist or political activist needs to make judgments that might be influenced by political beliefs, which is a majority of cases, they should not make those rulings either.

    Steve

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