Is Ginni Thomas a Threat to the Supreme Court?

Audio availableListen to this storyIn December, Chief Justice John Roberts released his year-end report on the federal judiciary. According to a recent Gallup poll, the Supreme Court has its lowest public-approval rating in history—in part because it is viewed as being overly politicized. President Joe Biden recently established a bipartisan commission to consider reforms to…

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Audio available

Listen to this story

In December, Chief Justice John Roberts released his year-end report on the federal judiciary. According to a recent Gallup poll, the Supreme Court has its lowest public-approval rating in history—in part because it is viewed as being overly politicized. President Joe Biden recently established a bipartisan commission to consider reforms to the Court, and members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require Justices to adhere to the same types of ethics standards as other judges. Roberts’s report, however, defiantly warned everyone to back off. “The Judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence,” he wrote. His statement followed a series of defensive speeches from members of the Court’s conservative wing, which now holds a super-majority of 6–3. Last fall, Justice Clarence Thomas, in an address at Notre Dame, accused the media of spreading the false notion that the Justices are merely politicians in robes. Such criticism, he said, “makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” adding, “They think you become like a politician!”

The claim that the Justices’ opinions are politically neutral is becoming increasingly hard to accept, especially from Thomas, whose wife, Virginia (Ginni) Thomas, is a vocal right-wing activist. She has declared that America is in existential danger because of the “deep state” and the “fascist left,” which includes “transsexual fascists.” Thomas, a lawyer who runs a small political-lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, has become a prominent member of various hard-line groups. Her political activism has caused controversy for years. For the most part, it has been dismissed as the harmless action of an independent spouse. But now the Court appears likely to secure victories for her allies in a number of highly polarizing cases—on abortion, affirmative action, and gun rights.

Many Americans first became aware of Ginni Thomas’s activism on January 6, 2021. That morning, before the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., turned into an assault on the Capitol resulting in the deaths of at least five people, she cheered on the supporters of President Donald Trump who had gathered to overturn Biden’s election. In a Facebook post that went viral, she linked to a news item about the protest, writing, “LOVE MAGA people!!!!” Shortly afterward, she posted about Ronald Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech. Her next status update said, “GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING.” Two days after the insurrection, she added a disclaimer to her feed, noting that she’d written the posts “before violence in US Capitol.” (The posts are no longer public.)

Later that January, the Washington Post revealed that she had also been agitating about Trump’s loss on a private Listserv, Thomas Clerk World, which includes former law clerks of Justice Thomas’s. The online discussion had been contentious. John Eastman, a former Thomas clerk and a key instigator of the lie that Trump actually won in 2020, was on the same side as Ginni Thomas, and he drew rebukes. According to the Post, Thomas eventually apologized to the group for causing internal rancor. Artemus Ward, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University and a co-author of “Sorcerers’ Apprentices,” a history of Supreme Court clerks, believes that the incident confirmed her outsized role. “Virginia Thomas has direct access to Thomas’s clerks,” Ward said. Clarence Thomas is now the Court’s senior member, having served for thirty years, and Ward estimates that there are “something like a hundred and twenty people on that Listserv.” In Ward’s view, they comprise “an élite right-wing commando movement.” Justice Thomas, he says, doesn’t post on the Listserv, but his wife “is advocating for things directly.” Ward added, “It’s unprecedented. I have never seen a Justice’s wife as involved.”

Clarence and Ginni Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article. In recent years, Justice Thomas, long one of the Court’s most reticent members, has been speaking up more in oral arguments. His wife, meanwhile, has become less publicly visible, but she has remained busy, aligning herself with many activists who have brought issues in front of the Court. She has been one of the directors of C.N.P. Action, a dark-money wing of the conservative pressure group the Council for National Policy. C.N.P. Action, behind closed doors, connects wealthy donors with some of the most radical right-wing figures in America. Ginni Thomas has also been on the advisory board of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student group, whose founder, Charlie Kirk, boasted of sending busloads of protesters to Washington on January 6th.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at N.Y.U. and a prominent judicial ethicist, told me, “I think Ginni Thomas is behaving horribly, and she’s hurt the Supreme Court and the administration of justice. It’s reprehensible. If you could take a secret poll of the other eight Justices, I have no doubt that they are appalled by Virginia Thomas’s behavior. But what can they do?” Gillers thinks that the Supreme Court should be bound by a code of conduct, just as all lower-court judges in the federal system are. That code requires a judge to recuse himself from hearing any case in which personal entanglements could lead a fair-minded member of the public to question his impartiality. Gillers stressed that “it’s an appearance test,” adding, “It doesn’t require an actual conflict. The reason we use an appearance test is because we say the appearance of justice is as important as the fact of justice itself.”

The Constitution offers only one remedy for misconduct on the Supreme Court: impeachment. This was attempted once, in 1804, but it resulted in an acquittal, underscoring the independence of the judicial branch. Since then, only one Justice, Abe Fortas, has been forced to step down; he resigned in 1969, after members of Congress threatened to impeach him over alleged financial conflicts of interest. Another Justice, William O. Douglas, an environmental activist, pushed the limits of propriety by serving on the board of the Sierra Club. In 1962, he resigned from the board, acknowledging that there was a chance the group would engage in litigation that could reach the Court. The historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book about the environmental movement, told me, “I think Bobby and Jack Kennedy told Douglas to cool his jets.”

In recent years, Democrats have been trying to impose stronger ethics standards on the Justices—a response, in part, to what Justice Sonia Sotomayor has described as the “stench” of partisanship on the Court. In 2016, Republicans in Congress, in an unprecedented act, refused to let President Barack Obama fill a vacancy on the Court. Trump subsequently pushed through the appointment of three hard-line conservative Justices. Last summer, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill that would require the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a binding code of conduct for members of the Supreme Court. They also proposed legislation that would require more disclosures about the financial backers behind amicus briefs—arguments submitted by “friends of the court” who are supporting one side in a case.

“Until I’ve had my coffee, I’m only capable of talking about coffee.”
Cartoon by Amy Hwang

So far, these proposals haven’t gone anywhere, but Gillers notes that there are extant laws circumscribing the ethical behavior of all federal judges, including the Justices. Arguably, Clarence Thomas has edged unusually close to testing them. All judges, even those on the Court, are required to recuse themselves from any case in which their spouse is “a party to the proceeding” or is “an officer, director, or trustee” of an organization that is a party to a case. Ginni Thomas has not been a named party in any case on the Court’s docket; nor is she litigating in any such case. But she has held leadership positions at conservative pressure groups that have either been involved in cases before the Court or have had members engaged in such cases. In 2019, she announced a political project called Crowdsourcers, and said that one of her four partners would be the founder of Project Veritas, James O’Keefe. Project Veritas tries to embarrass progressives by making secret videos of them, and last year petitioned the Court to enjoin Massachusetts from enforcing a state law that bans the surreptitious taping of public officials. Another partner in Crowdsourcers, Ginni Thomas said in her announcement, was Cleta Mitchell, the chairman of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative election-law nonprofit. It, too, has had business before the Court, filing amicus briefs in cases centering on the democratic process. Thomas also currently serves on the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars, a group promoting conservative values in academia, which has filed an amicus brief before the Court in a potentially groundbreaking affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard. And, though nobody knew it at the time, Ginni Thomas was an undisclosed paid consultant at the conservative pressure group the Center for Security Policy, when its founder, Frank Gaffney, submitted an amicus brief to the Court supporting Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham specializing in legal ethics, notes, “In the twenty-first century, there’s a feeling that spouses are not joined at the hip.” He concedes, though, that “the appearance” created by Ginni Thomas’s political pursuits “is awful—they look like a mom-and-pop political-hack group, where she does the political stuff and he does the judging.” It’s hard to imagine, he told me, that the couple doesn’t discuss Court cases: “She’s got the ear of a Justice, and surely they talk about their work.” But, from the technical standpoint of judicial ethics, “she’s slightly removed from all these cases—she’s not actually the legal director.” Green feels that the conflict of interest is “close, but not close enough” to require that Thomas recuse himself.

David Luban, a professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown, who specializes in legal ethics, is more concerned. He told me, “If Ginni Thomas is intimately involved—financially or ideologically tied to the litigant—that strikes me as slicing the baloney a little thin.”

When Clarence Thomas met Ginni Lamp, in 1986, he was an ambitious Black conservative in charge of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—and she was even more conservative and better connected than he was. Her father ran a firm that developed housing in and around Omaha, and her parents were Party activists who had formed the backbone of Barry Goldwater’s campaign in Nebraska. The writer Kurt Andersen, who grew up across the street from the family, recalls, “Her parents were the roots of the modern, crazy Republican Party. My parents were Goldwater Republicans, but even they thought the Lamp family was nuts.” Ginni graduated from Creighton University, in Omaha, and then attended law school there. Her parents helped get her a job with a local Republican candidate for Congress, and when he won she followed him to Washington. But, after reportedly flunking the bar exam, she fell in with a cultish self-help group, Lifespring, whose members were encouraged to strip naked and mock one another’s body fat. She eventually broke away, and began working for the Chamber of Commerce, opposing “comparable worth” pay for women. She and Thomas began dating, and in 1987 they married. As a woman clashing with the women’s movement, she had found much in common with Thomas, who opposed causes supported by many Black Americans. At Thomas’s extraordinarily contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in 1991, Anita Hill credibly accused him of having sexually harassed her when she was working at the E.E.O.C. Ginni Thomas later likened the experience to being stuck inside a scalding furnace. Even before then, a friend told the Washington Post, the couple was so bonded that “the one person [Clarence] really listens to is Virginia.”

Ginni Thomas had wanted to run for Congress, but once her husband was on the Supreme Court she reportedly felt professionally stuck. She moved through various jobs, including one at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. In 2010, she launched her lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting. Her Web site quotes a client saying that she is able to “give access to any door in Washington.”

Four years ago, Ginni Thomas inaugurated the Impact Awards—an annual ceremony to honor “courageous cultural warriors” battling the “radical ideologues on the left” who use “manipulation, mobs and deceit for their ends.” She presented the awards at luncheons paid for by United in Purpose, a nonprofit that mobilizes conservative evangelical voters. Many of the recipients have served on boards or committees with Ginni Thomas, and quite a few have had business in front of the Supreme Court, either filing amicus briefs or submitting petitions asking that the Justices hear cases. At the 2019 event, Ginni Thomas praised one of that year’s recipients, Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who became an anti-abortion activist, for her “riveting indictment of Planned Parenthood’s propagation of lies.” That year, Thomas also gave a prize to Mark Meadows, then a hard-line Republican in Congress, describing him as the leader “in the House right now that we were waiting for.” Meadows, in accepting the award, said, “Ginni was talking about how we ‘team up,’ and we actually have teamed up. And I’m going to give you something you won’t hear anywhere else—we worked through the first five days of the impeachment hearings.”

Thomas’s decision to bestow prizes on Johnson and Meadows underscores the complicated overlaps between her work and her husband’s. In 2020, Johnson, a year after receiving an Impact Award, filed with the Court an amicus brief supporting restrictions on abortion in Louisiana. Last year, Johnson participated in the January 6th protests, and the insurrection has since become the object of much litigation, some of which will likely end up before the Court. Last month, she went on Fox News and said that “a couple of the liberal Justices”—she singled out Justice Sotomayor by name—had been “idiotic” during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi abortion case now under consideration by the Supreme Court. (Johnson didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Soon after Ginni Thomas gave Mark Meadows an Impact Award, he became Trump’s chief of staff. This past December, he refused to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee that is investigating the Capitol attack. Cleta Mitchell, who advised Trump on how to contest Biden’s electoral victory, received an Impact Award in 2018. She has moved to block a committee subpoena of her phone records. The House of Representatives recently voted to send the Justice Department a referral recommending that it charge Meadows with criminal contempt of Congress. The same thing may well happen to Mitchell. It seems increasingly likely that some of Ginni Thomas’s Impact Award recipients will end up as parties before the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department has so far charged more than seven hundred people in connection with the insurrection, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that the federal government will prosecute people “at any level” who may have instigated the riots—perhaps even Trump. On January 19th, the Supreme Court rejected the former President’s request that it intervene to stop the congressional committee from accessing his records. Justice Thomas was the lone Justice to dissent. (Meadows had filed an amicus brief in support of Trump.) Ginni Thomas, meanwhile, has denounced the very legitimacy of the congressional committee. On December 15th, she and sixty-two other prominent conservatives signed an open letter to Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, demanding that the House Republican Conference excommunicate Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their “egregious” willingness to serve on the committee. The statement was issued by an advocacy group called the Conservative Action Project, of which Ginni Thomas has described herself as an “active” member. The group’s statement excoriated the congressional investigation as a “partisan political persecution” of “private citizens who have done nothing wrong,” and accused the committee of serving “improperly issued subpoenas.”

Read More