New York Times Shocked That Clarence Thomas’s Wife Has A Job

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife Virginia is under scrutiny ? Why ? Because she has a job.

The New York Times is out today with a story about Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that can only be described as a hit piece:

RICHMOND, Va. — As one of the keynote speakers here Friday at a state convention billed as the largest Tea Party event ever, Virginia Thomas gave the throng of more than 2,000 activists a full-throated call to arms for conservative principles.

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 Atlanta.

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 Liberty Central. She began the group in late 2009 with two gifts of $500,000 and $50,000, and because it is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, named for the applicable section of the federal tax code, she does not have to publicly disclose any contributors. Such tax-exempt groups are supposed to make sure that less than half of their activities are political.

(…)

Unlike many other conservative nonprofit groups that are pouring donations into television advertising to benefit Republican candidates, Liberty Central has not done so, and it is not clear whether it will.

This month, Liberty Central began what it called its first ad campaign, but the ads were limited to Web sites for the conservative talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin — suggesting an effort to build membership for Liberty Central, not elect candidates. The ads link to Liberty Central’s Web site and a video of Mrs. Thomas soliciting 100,000 signatures against the “Obama tax increase” — referring to the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts on Dec. 31.

The bigger question for many is how she is financing these activities. Liberty Central reported the initial $550,000 on its 2009 tax return, though the identities of the two donors are redacted.

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.”

This isn’t the first time that Mrs. Thomas’s employment became a subject of press obsession, The Los Angeles Times ran a similar piece earlier this year when she first became affiliated with Liberty Central, and liberal bloggers like Alan Colmes, Crooks and Liars and AMERICAblog News were all over the story then, just as they are now. As Eugene Volokh explained back in March, though, there really isn’t anything unusual or improper about the fact that Clarence Thomas’s wife works for a political advocacy organization:

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.

Of course, this is Clarence Thomas we’re talking about so normal rules of fairness don’t apply apparently.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Spoker says:

    It is good to see a new progressive twist on ‘blaming the son for the sins of the father’. Such and attack would be a sick joke in saner times. Free speach is so important except for those that disagree you.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug it’s not because she has ” a job.” It is because of the nature of the job. He is a supreme court justice. For her to be a leading member of an extreme right wing advocacy group that take highly visible positions on issues that come before the court is simply innapropriate. And I’d say exactly the same if say Breyer’s wife was a leading member of say the ACLU. Perhaps that is why Mrs Ripston has stepped down from the ACLU. I’d say it takes a fairly large tin ear to be unable to perceive the problem.

  3. ponce says:

    Hehe, nothing to see here, honest!

    Being able to funnel unlimited tainted funds to a supreme court justice is perfectly normal.

    Is Clarence Thomas the most embarrassing Justice in history?

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    “It is good to see a new progressive twist on ‘blaming the son for the sins of the father’”

    You don’t choose your father whereas you do choose your spouse.

  5. It is because of the nature of the job. He is a supreme court justice.

    So why did we not hear the same thing about the fact that the wife of one of the Judge’s on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals works for the ACLU, or that Justice Ginsburg herself worked for the ACLU before becoming a judge ?

    Trust me, if Virginia Thomas was working for the NOW Legal Defense Fund, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

  6. Joe,

    One last thought. Unless you want to establish a rule that says that judicial spouses should not be involved in politics, hold political office, or take stands on public issues, then this entire New York Times story was nothing more than a hatchet job.

  7. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    “Of course, this is Clarence Thomas we’re talking about so normal rules of fairness don’t apply apparently.”

    Exactly on point. Would anything of this nature be wrriten had it been Justice Breyer’s wife?

  8. ponce says:

    “Would anything of this nature be wrriten had it been Justice Breyer’s wife?”

    Wingnut’s playing the victim card…film at 11!

  9. Derrick says:

    “So why did we not hear the same thing about the fact that the wife of one of the Judge’s on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals works for the ACLU, or that Justice Ginsburg herself worked for the ACLU before becoming a judge ?”

    I’m guessing that there aren’t more than 5 people who read this blog who can name even half of the members of their ct. of appeals without googling. And there is a reason for that. Ct. of Appeals have limited power, because any decision of theirs can be overruled by a higher body. In a 5-4 ruling a single SCt justice can’t write the law of the land. Sorry, there is a huge difference in scrutiny for good reason.

    And the Ginsburg comparison makes no sense. She worked there as in past tense. You scrutinize past behavior during confirmation hearings. This Mrs. Thomas stuff is a present day problem.

  10. mpw280 says:

    It isn’t the job, or the woman we are talking about. It is the fact that the job is at a conservative group and the justice is black. If he were white and the job at an abortion factory or in a liberal money laundering operation the NYT wouldn’t touch the story with a 10 ft pole. Let’s face it influence peddling is the realm of democrats and they don’t want their turf invaded by others. mpw

  11. TG Chicago says:

    “One last thought. Unless you want to establish a rule that says that judicial spouses should not be involved in politics, hold political office, or take stands on public issues, then this entire New York Times story was nothing more than a hatchet job.”

    I always hate when people use the weakest examples to characterize their opponents’ positions. Sort of like when the Abu Gharib stuff came out and some people tried to say “Oh, what’s so bad about putting panties on a guy’s head?” when clearly that was the *least* objectionable thing, not the most objectionable.

    Similarly, you mention things like judicial spouses “taking stands on public issues” while completely ignoring the financial angle – i.e., the main thrust of the NYT piece. Very weak defense.

  12. tom p says:

    Clarens Thomas has a wife???? This is the news of this nugget!

  13. ponce says:

    “Very weak defense.”

    Special interests funneling bribes to official’s family members is pretty standard procedure in the third world…why does it need a defense?

  14. superdestroyerq says:

    I wonder where all of the progressives where when Tom Daschle’s wife was a lobbyist or Parris Glendening was living with a member of his staff.

    One would think that the left would be supportive of strong wives who have their own careers. I guess the Party that made Valerie Jarret, a corrupt Chicago “clout” a policy adviser to President Obama would care at all about the appearance of inproprity. I wonder where all of the progressives were after John Dingel’s wife was convicted for corruption? I wonder where all of the progressives were with Maxine Water’s husband being on corporate boards?

  15. ponce says:

    “One would think that the left would be supportive of strong wives who have their own careers. ”

    There’s quite a difference between an elected official who has to stand before the voters every few years and an appointed for life oligarch whose decisions can’t be appealed.

  16. anjin-san says:

    > “One would think that the left would be supportive of strong wives who have their own careers.

    I rather doubt anyone would be writing large checks to Mrs. Thomas’ group were it not for her husband’s rather prominent position in our judicial system.

    Having a job is one thing. She is Trading on her husband’s career to get money to fund a partisan political group. That is another something else. Possibly there is nothing wrong with what she is doing, but taking a look at it is hardly a “hit piece”.

  17. Tano says:

    Talk about a hit piece, Doug – your title is a grossly dishonest mischaracterization of the Times piece – no matter whether you agree with it or not. How on earth can you justify pretending that the problem they have with her is that she “has a job”. You know darn well what the implications of phrasing it like that are, and you also know how inappropriate they are.

    And did you actually read the article? The impression I got from reading it was that their concern was focused on the fact that she was being given large sums of money from anonymous donors. That is where the conflict arises. Who are these people? How can we know whether or not they have business before the Court? Do you really think it is appropriate for a SC justice to recieve, through his spouse, a large amount of money from someone who may have a case before the Court? Would you not support disclosure in cases like this?

    Oh, but Mrs. Thomas need not reveal who her donors are. Is there no problem here for you?

  18. Tano says:

    “One would think that the left would be supportive of strong wives who have their own careers.”

    They are. There is no issue with her having a job. That is the gross mischaracterization of Doug. The issue is the money, coming from anonymous donors.

    “I guess the Party that made Valerie Jarret, a corrupt Chicago “clout” a policy adviser to President Obama would care at all about the appearance of inproprity.”

    List examples of how and why Jarret is “corrupt”. I am calling you out as a liar. Back up your charges.

    ” I wonder where all of the progressives were after John Dingel’s wife was convicted for corruption?”

    Conyers, not Dingell. ..

    ” I wonder where all of the progressives were with Maxine Water’s husband being on corporate boards?”

    What is the issue there? Waters is not a judge, and her husbands affiliations are a matter of public record. Mrs. Thomases donors are not. Can you understand the difference?

  19. anjin-san says:

    Tano raises some good issues Doug. Do you have a response, or are you just talking trash to try and keep a little right wing cred going?

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    “So why did we not hear the same thing about the fact that the wife of one of the Judge’s on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals works for the ACLU, or that Justice Ginsburg herself worked for the ACLU before becoming a judge ?”

    I’m not endorsing the fact that the wife of justice on the 9th works for the ACLU and as you point out she’s now resigned. In the case of Ginsburg, is is secret that she is a liberal leaning justice or is it a secret that Roberts leans right? All this gets aired at confirmation hearings and you get what you expect. But the spouses of supreme court justices (suppose one was a senior official in SEIU?) simply shouldn’t be involved in this sort of activity where there’s lots of secret cash washing around because it fails to pass the Caesar’s wife test. What’s extraordinary is that anyone should think this just fine.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Are you really going to do a cut and run here Doug? It is your post…

  22. Cut and run from what ?

    Neither Tano nor the New York Times have come up with anything other than insinuations about Virginia Thomas. There’s no evidence of anything improper, and it’s not even clear that anything that they accuse her of would create a situation that would violate the Canon of Judicial Ethics or require Thomas to recuse himself from a case. When there’s real evidence of a conflict of interest, get back to me. Until then, this is just a smear job against the wife of a man that a lot of people have irrationally hated for a long time.

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug Mataconis says:
    Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 15:07
    “Cut and run from what ?”

    Obviously the Caesar’s wife doctrine has no significance for you Doug. And I have no irrational hatred against Thomas but he does appear to have some complexes as you’d know if you’d read that revealing little book of his. He is also as you must know widely regarded in the legal profession as the least distinguished member of the court in terms of his legal scholarship. I’m not saying this is good or bad (I don’t think Burger was any great legal scholar) but it’s a fact. Trying to turn Thomas into a victim hardly has no relevance to issues of propriety connected with his wife’s activities.

  24. Tano says:

    “There’s no evidence of anything improper, ”

    There most certainly is – in YOUR reporting of the story. Need I repeat? You totally ignored the actual points that the Times article made, and tacked on some bizarre title to your post where you charged that the TImes was shocked, and felt it newsworthy, that Mrs. Thomas has a job.
    What kind of nonsense is that?

    “…it’s not even clear that anything that they accuse her of would create a situation that would violate the Canon of Judicial Ethics…”

    What did they accuse her of? They stated, totally factually, that she is a political activist. And they stated, totally factually, that her organization received huge anonymous donations to support her political activism. Where is there an “accusation” in this?

    “When there’s real evidence of a conflict of interest, …”

    And when would ever know that there is? THAT was the point of the Times article. That there is no mechanism by which her donors need be made public.

    “this is just a smear job against the wife of a man that a lot of people have irrationally hated for a long time.”

    Not at all. They make the argument – similar to arguments they have made for over a century – that there should be transparency in these matters – both to protect the public from officials who bend or break the rules, and to protect the institutions from perceptions of being unfairly stacked against some citizens, and to protect the officials themselves (the innocent ones) from unfair attacks. This is a paradigmatic example of a ‘good government’ issue.

    Volokh is very wrong in the quote you post –
    “Judges have plenty of political and ideological predispositions that they bring to the job from their earlier lives, ”

    Nobody doubts that or wishes to do anything about it.

    “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…”

    This too is a total strawman argument. The “mild additional influence’ that is a problem here is the potential for thousands of dollars being pumped into the family budget of a SC justice, for political reasons, from unknown sources, and the effect that has on the reputation of the Court itself.

    And no one is saying anything about Mrs. Thomas needing to limit her professional life. The argument is NOT that she should not do this work, it is that there should be transparency as to who is funding it.

    Maybe you should reread the article. It does none of the things that you and Volokh claim it does, it offers quotes from people who support her as well as criticize her – including mentioning the examples of other spouses. It is a very farily written piece, and it raises a real issue.

    Why don’t you think a moment and address the issue in a general way. There are Democratic judges, of course. What should be the general rule about disclosure of spousal finances when the spouse is a political activist and judicial issues as well as cases are an everyday feature of our politics?

  25. […] New York Times Shocked That Clarence Thomas’s Wife Has A Job (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

  26. Spin it however you like Tano, it still comes down to unfounded allegations against a man’s wife.

    If that’s how you like your politics, then that’s your choice.

  27. anjin-san says:

    > it still comes down to unfounded allegations against a man’s wife.

    So we do know where the money is coming from? Could you share that information with us? You have also declined to detail the “corruption” of Valerie Jarret.

  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    anjin-san says:
    Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 18:59

    Although Doug has seriously broken cover over the last week I don’t think you’ll get an answer

  29. Tano says:

    Once again Doug, what are the allegations against Mrs. Thomas? You are just making stuff up now. Point me to one allegation against Mrs. Thomas, either founded or unfounded, in the article.

    DId you just have some weird emotional defensive reaction for Justice Thomas, and now you find yourself embarrassed that your post has nothing to do with the actual facts of the article? I am at a loss to explain your unwillingness to respond to the obvious issues raised here…

    Why not, at long last, actually deal with the issue raised in the article? Should there be any disclosure rules for prominent judges when their spouses are political operatives receiving large amounts of money for political advocacy?

  30. anjin-san says:

    Doug… for someone who rails against unfounded allegations, you don’t seem to have a problem making one against Jarret. Guess thats how YOU like your politics.

  31. Mrs. Keith Leach says:

    Now who, or rather what group, would really care if the spouse of any federal type judge stood up and champions the U.S. Constitution? The Bill of Rights? Who????? Ha! I think we all know the answer to that.

    To me, as long as they are touting the rights given to us and wanting to keep the country living in the Constitution, I do not care where their funding comes from!

  32. […] New York Times Shocked That Clarence Thomas’s Wife Has A Job (outsidethebeltway.com) […]