Is Ginni Thomas a Threat to the Supreme Court?

Behind closed doors, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas's wife is working with many groups directly involved in controversial cases before the Supreme Court.

URL ginni_thomas-clarence_thomas.webp
Ginni Thomas [source]
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Title Is Ginni Thomas a Threat to the Supreme Court?
Subtitle Behind closed doors, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas's wife is working with many groups directly involved in controversial cases before the Supreme Court.
Author Jane Mayer, staff writer and chief Washington correspondent at The New Yorker since 1995.  |  Wikipedia: Jane Mayer
Date published 2022-01-21
Curation date 2022-01-28
Curator Dr. Victoria A. Stuart, Ph.D.
Editorial practice Refer here  |  Date format: yyyy-mm-dd
Summary Ginni Thomas has declared that America is in existential danger because of the "deep state" and the "fascist left" which includes "transsexual fascists."
Discussion [, 2022-01-27] How Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, influences the Supreme CourtThe New Yorker writer Jane Mayer discusses the conservative beliefs and influence of Virginia "Ginni" Lamp Thomas, an activist who's been associated with some groups involved in the 2021-01-06 2021 United States Capitol attack.
Main article Virginia "Ginni" Lamp Thomas
Related Clarence Thomas  [spouse; Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court]
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In 2021-12, Supreme Court of the United States 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 Supreme Court, and members of the United States Congress have introduced legislation that would require Supreme Court justices to adhere to the same types of ethics standards as other judges. John Roberts' report, however, defiantly warned everyone to back off. "The Judiciary's power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence," Roberts wrote. Roberts statement followed a series of defensive speeches from members of the Supreme Court's conservative wing, which now holds a supermajority of 6-3. Last fall [2021], Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in an address at the University of Notre Dame, accused the media of spreading the false notion that the Supreme Court Justices are merely politicians in robes. Such criticism, Clarence Thomas 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 Supreme Court Justices' opinions are politically neutral is becoming increasingly hard to accept, especially from Clarence Thomas, whose wife, Virginia "Ginni" Lamp Thomas, is a vocal right-wing activist. Ginni Thomas has declared that America is in existential danger because of the "deep state" and the "fascist left," which includes "transsexual fascists." Ginni Thomas, a lawyer who runs a small political-lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, has become a prominent member of various hard-line groups. Ginni Thomas' 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 Supreme 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' activism on 2021-01-06. That morning, before the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., turned into an assault on the Capitol  [2021 United States Capitol attack] resulting in the deaths of at least five people, Ginni Thomas cheered on the supporters of President Donald Trump who had gathered to overturn Joe Biden's election. In a Facebook post that went viral, Ginni Thomas 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. Ginni Thomas's next status update said, "GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING." Two days after the U.S. capitol insurrection, Ginni Thomas added a disclaimer to her feed, noting that she'd written the posts "before violence in U.S. Capitol." (The posts are no longer public.)

Later that January [2021-01], The Washington Post   revealed that Ginni Thomas had also been agitating about President Donald Trumpemail listserv - Thomas Clerk World - which includes former law clerks of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas. The online discussion had been contentious. John C. Eastman, a former clerk to Clarence Thomas and a key instigator of the lie that Trump actually won in 2020 [Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election  |  Eastman memos], was on the same side as Ginni Thomas, and he drew rebukes. According to the The Washington Post, Ginni Thomas eventually apologized to the group [Thomas Clerk World] for causing internal rancor. Artemus Ward  [local copy], a political scientist at Northern Illinois University and a co-author of Sorcerers' Apprentices: 100 Years of Law Clerks at the United States Supreme Court, a history of Supreme Court clerks, believes that the incident confirmed Ginni Thomas' outsized role. "Virginia Thomas has direct access to Clarence Thomas' clerks," Artemus Ward said. Clarence Thomas is now the Supreme Court's senior member, having served for thirty years, and Artemus Ward estimates that there are "something like a hundred and twenty people on that listserv" [Thomas Clerk World]. In Ward's view, they comprise "an élite right-wing commando movement." Artemus Ward says that Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas doesn't post on the Thomas Clerk Worldlistserv, but his wife Ginni Thomas "is advocating for things directly" on that listserv. Artemus Ward added, "It's unprecedented. I have never seen a Justice's wife as involved."

Clarence Thomas and Ginn Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article. In recent years, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, long one of the Supreme Court's most reticent members, has been speaking up more in oral arguments. Meanwhile, his wife Ginni Thomas has become less publicly visible but she has remained busy, aligning herself with many activists who have brought issues in front of the Supreme Court. Ginni Thomas has been one of the directors of C.N.P. Action  [Council for National Policy Action], a dark money political wing of the conservative advocacy 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  [Turning Point USA], a pro-Trump student group, whose founder, Charlie Kirk, boasted of sending busloads of protesters to Washington on 2021-01-06  [2021 United States Capitol attack].

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University School of Law and a prominent judicial ethicist, said: "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 Supreme Court Justices, I have no doubt that they are appalled by Virginia Thomas' behavior. But what can they do?" Stephen 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 bound. 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 of the United States--> 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 Supreme Court Justice, Abe Fortas, has been forced to step down; Abe Fortas resigned in 1969, after members of Congress threatened to impeach him over alleged financial conflicts of interest. Another Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, an environmental activist, pushed the limits of propriety by serving on the board of the Sierra Club. In 1962, William O. Douglas resigned from the board of the Sierra Club, acknowledging that there was a chance the Sierra Club would engage in litigation that could reach the Supreme Court. The historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book about the environmental movement, said, "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 Supreme Court Justices - a response, in part, to what Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor has described as the "stench" of partisanship on the Supreme Court. In 2016, Republicans in Congress, in an unprecedented act, refused to let President Barack Obama fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. President Donald Trump subsequently pushed through the appointment of three hard-line conservative Supreme Court Justices. Last summer [2021], 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  [amicus curiae] - arguments submitted by "friends of the court" who are supporting one side in a case.

So far, these proposals haven't gone anywhere, but Stephen Gillers notes that there are extant laws circumscribing the ethical behavior of all federal judges, including the Supreme Court Justices. Arguably, Clarence Thomas has edged unusually close to testing them. All judges, even those on the Supreme 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 Supreme Court's docket; nor is Ginni Thomas litigating in any such case. But Ginni Thomas has held leadership positions at conservative advocacy groups that have either been involved in cases before the Supreme Court or have had members engaged in such cases. In 2019, Ginni Thomas announced a political project called Crowdsourcers, and said that one of her four partners would be the founder of Project VeritasJames O'Keefe. Project Veritas tries to embarrass progressives by making secret videos of them, and last year [2021] petitioned the Supreme 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 organization. The Public Interest Legal Foundation, too, has had business before the Supreme Court, filing amicus briefs in cases centering on the democratic process. Ginni 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 Supreme Court in a potentially groundbreaking affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard University. And, though nobody knew it at the time, Ginni Thomas was an undisclosed paid consultant at the conservative advocacy group the Center for Security Policy, when its founder, Frank Gaffney, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban  [Trump travel ban  |  Executive Order 13769, "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States [2017 Trump Executive Order] ," labeled the "Muslim ban" by critics].

Bruce Green  [local copy], a professor at Fordham University specializing in legal ethics, notes, "In the twenty-first century, there's a feeling that spouses are not joined at the hip." Bruce Green concedes, though, that "the appearance" created by Ginni Thomas' political pursuits "is awful - they look like a mom-and-pop political-hack group, where she [Ginni Thomas] does the political stuff and he [Clarence Thomas] does the judging." It's hard to imagine, he said, that the couple doesn't discuss Supreme Court cases: "She's got the ear of a Supreme Court 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." Bruce Green feels that the conflict of interest is "close, but not close enough" to require that Clarence Thomas recuse himself.

David J. Luban  [local copy], a professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University, who specializes in legal ethics, is more concerned. He said, "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 Ginni Lamp was even more conservative and better connected than Clarence Thomas was. Virginia Lamp's father ran a firm that developed housing in and around Omaha, Nebraska, and her parents were Republican 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 Lamp 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 Lamp graduated from Creighton University, in Omaha, and then attended law school there. Virginia Lamp's parents helped get her a job with a local Republican candidate for Congress, and when he won she followed him> to Washington [1981; Congressman Hal Daub]. But, after reportedly flunking the bar exam, Virginia Lamp 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 United States Chamber of Commerce, opposing "comparable worth" pay for women. Virginia Lamp and Clarence Thomas began dating, and in 1987 they married. As a woman clashing with the women's movement, Ginni Thomas had found much in common with Clarence Thomas, who opposed causes supported by many Black Americans. At Clarence Thomas' extraordinarily contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in 1991, Anita Hill credibly accused Clarence Thomas of having sexually harassed her when she was working at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 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 Thomas] 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. Ginni Thomas moved through various jobs, including one at The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. In 2010, Ginni Thomas launched her lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting. Her website quotes a client saying that she is able to "give access to any door in Washington."

Four years ago, Ginni Thomas inaugurated the Impact Award - an annual ceremony to honor "courageous cultural warriors" battling the "radical ideologues on the left-wing politics" 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  [see also: Christian Right]. Many Impact Award 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 Supreme Court Justices hear cases. At the 2019 Impact Awards event, Ginni Thomas praised one of that year's recipients, Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who became an anti-abortion activist  [see also: anti-abortion movements], for her "riveting indictment of Planned Parenthood's propagation of lies." That year [2019], Ginni Thomas also gave an Impact Award 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." Mark 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."

Ginni Thomas' decision to bestow Impact Award prizes on Abby Johnson and Mark Meadows underscores the complicated overlaps between her work and her husband's [Clarence Thomas]. In 2020, Abby Johnson, a year after receiving an Impact Award, filed with the Supreme Court an amicus brief supporting restrictions on abortion in Louisiana. Last year [2021], Abby Johnson participated in the 2021-01-06 protests  [2021 United States Capitol attack], and the insurrection has since become the object of much litigation, some of which will likely end up before the Supreme Court. Last month [2022-01], Abby Johnson went on   Fox News and said that "a couple of the liberal Supreme Court Justices" - she singled out Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia 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 U.S. Supreme Court. (Abby Johnson didn't respond to requests for comment.)

Soon after Ginni Thomas gave Mark Meadows an Impact Award, he became Donald Trump's chief of staff. This past December [2021-12], Mark Meadows refused to comply with a subpoena from the House of Representatives select committee  [United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack] that is investigating the 2021 United States Capitol attack. Cleta Mitchell, who advised Donald Trump on how to contest Joe Biden's electoral victory, received an Impact Award in 2018. Cleta Mitchell has moved to block a committee subpoena of her phone records. The United States House of Representatives recently voted to send the United States Department of Justice a referral recommending that the U.S. Department of Justice charge Mark Meadows with criminal contempt of Congress. The same thing may well happen to Cleta Mitchell. It seems increasingly likely that some of Ginni Thomas' Impact Award recipients will end up as parties before the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Department of Justice has so far charged more than seven hundred people in connection with the 2021-01-06 insurrection, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that the federal government will prosecute people "at any level" who may have instigated the Capitol riots - perhaps even Donald Trump. On 2022-01-19, the Supreme Court rejected former President Trump's request that it intervene to stop the congressional committee  [United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack] from accessing his records. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone Supreme Court Justice to dissent. (Mark Meadows had filed an amicus briefs support of Donald Trump.) Ginni Thomas, meanwhile, has denounced the very legitimacy of the congressional committee. On 2021-12-15 Ginni Thomas 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 Kinzingerfor their "egregious" willingness to serve on the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. 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 Conservative Action Project'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."

A current member of the Conservative Action Project said that Ginni Thomas is part of the Conservative Action Project not because of her qualifications but "because she's married to Clarence Thomas." The member asked to have his name withheld because, he said, Ginni Thomas is "volatile" and becomes "edgy" when challenged. He added, "The best word to describe her is 'tribal.' You're either part of her group or you're the enemy."

Ginni Thomas has her own links to the January 6th insurrection. Ginni Thomas' website, which touts her consulting acumen, features a glowing testimonial from Kimberly Fletcher, the president of a group called Moms for America: "Ginni's ability to make connections and communicate with folks on the ground as well as on Capitol Hill  ["Capitol Hill" is a metonym for the United States Capitol or the United States Congress] is most impressive." Kimberly Fletcher spoke at two protests in Washington, D.C. on 2021-01-05, promoting the falsehood that the 2020 election was fraudulent  [Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election]. At the first protest, which Kimberly Fletcher planned, Fletcher praised the previous speaker, Representative Mary Miller, a freshman Republican from Illinois, saying, "Amen!" Other people who heard Mary Miller's speech called for her resignation: she'd declared, "Hitler was right on one thing - he said, 'Whoever has the youth has the future.' " At the second protest, not far from the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., Kimberly Fletcher declared that, when her children and grandchildren one day asked her, "Where were you when the Republic was on the verge of collapse?," she would answer, "I was right here, fighting to my last breath to save it!"

Vivian Brown  [local copy], who returned a call to Moms for America, said that she would not discuss Kimberly Fletcher's testimonial for Ginni Thomas [United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack] or clarify whether Kimberly Fletcher had been Ginni Thomas' business client. But the record suggests that the two have been political associates for more than a decade. A program from Liberty XPO & Symposium  [local copy], a 2010 convention that has been described as the "largest conservative training event in history," indicates that Kimberly Fletcher and Ginni Thomas co-hosted a Remember the Ladies Banquet. A list of other speakers at the symposium includes Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers  [Wikipedia: Oath Keepers], an extremist militia group. Stewart Rhodes was arrested earlier this month [2022-01] and charged, along with ten associates, with seditious conspiracy for allegedly plotting to halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden's electoral win by storming the Capitol during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on 2021-01-06. (Stewart Rhodes has pleaded not guilty.)

Another organizer of the 2021-01-06 uprising  2021 United States Capitol attack] who has been subpoenaed by the congressional committee [United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack], Ali Alexander (born Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar), also has long-standing ties to Ginni Thomas. Like Kimberly Fletcher, Ali Alexander spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C. the night before [2021-01-05] the riot, leading a chant of "Victory or death!" A decade ago, Ali Alexander was a participant in the Groundswell group, a secretive, invitation-only network that, among other things, coordinated with hard-right congressional aides, journalists, and advocacy groups to launch attacks against President Barack Obama and against less conservative Republicans. As recently as 2019, Ginni Thomas described herself as the chairman of Groundswell, which, according to documents first published by Mother Jones, sees itself as waging "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation." As Karoli Kuns, of the media watchdog Crooks and Liars, has noted, several Groundswell members - including Steve Bannon  [Steve Bannon] and Sebastian Gorka  [spouse: Katharine Gorka], the fringe foreign-policy analyst - went on to form the far-right flank of the Trump administration. (Both Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka were eventually pushed out.) According to Ginni Thomas' biography in the Council for National Policy's membership book, she remains active in Groundswell. A former participant said that Ginni Thomas chairs weekly Groundswell meetings.

Norman Eisen, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution who, between 2009 and 2011, served as the special counsel and special assistant to the President for ethics and government reform, said that "it is hard to understand how Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas can be impartial when hearing cases related to the upheaval on January 6th [2021 United States Capitol attack], in light of his wife's documented affiliation with January 6th instigators and Stop the Steal organizers." He argues that "Justice Thomas should recuse himself, given his wife's interests in the outcome of these cases."

Stephen Gillers, of New York University School of Law, and other legal scholars say that there is little chance of such a recusal. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas has recused himself at least once before, from a 1996 case involving a military academy that his son was attending. But, as Norman Eisen observed, though Ginni Thomas' activism has attracted criticism for years, Clarence Thomas has never acknowledged it as a conflict of interest.

Recusals on the Supreme Court are extremely rare, in part because substitutes are not permitted, as they are for judges on lower courts. Yet several other Supreme Court Justices have stepped aside from cases to avoid even the appearance of misconduct. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer recuses himself from any case that has been heard by his brother, Charles Breyer, a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. "It's about the appearance of impropriety," Charles Breyer said. "Laypeoplewould think you would favor your brother over the merits of the case. It's done to make people believe that the Supreme Court is not influenced by relationships." Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer also recused himself from a case involving the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, because Breyer's wife had previously worked there.

Charles Breyer said that, although Supreme Court Justices sometimes "might have a right not to recuse, that doesn't change the question, which is: How does that affect the appearance of impropriety?" When asked him whether the Supreme Court Justices confront one another about potential conflicts of interest, Charles Breyer said, "My guess is that they don't discuss it. They leave it entirely up to the independent judgment. They wouldn't dare suggest recusal - it's part of the way they get along with one another."

In 2021, Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh recused himself, without explanation, from a case apparently related to a family member. According to Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, a nonprofit organization advocating for reforms to the federal judiciary, an amicus briefs had been filed by a cosmetics trade association that Brett Kavanaugh's father used to run. [New Venture Fund - the largest 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the network of four nonprofits created and managed by Arabella Advisors - provides all the funding for Fix the Courts.]

The spouses of other Supreme Court Justices have taken steps to avoid creating conflicts of interest in the first place. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg - then one of the country's most successful tax lawyers - left his law firm and turned to teaching. After John Roberts was nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice, his wife, Jane Sullivan, retired from practicing law and resigned from a leadership role in Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion group [see also: anti-abortion movements].

In 2004, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia famously defended his decision to continue presiding over a case that involved former Vice-President Dick Cheney after it was revealed that the two men had gone duck hunting together while the case was in the Supreme Court's docket. Antonin Scalia argued, in essence, that Washington, D.C. is a small town where important people tend to socialize. But in 2003 Antonin Scalia recused himself in a case addressing whether the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the U.S. Constitution's  Separation of church and state in the United States - because, several months before oral arguments began, Antonin Scalia had given a speech belittling the litigant's arguments.

Ginni Thomas has complained that she and her husband have received more criticism than have two well-known liberal jurists with politically active spouses: Marjorie O. Rendell continued to serve on the appeals court in Pennsylvania while her husband at the time, Ed Rendell, served as Pennsylvania's governor; Stephen Reinhardt, an appeals court judge in California, declined to recuse himself from cases in which the American Civil Liberties Union was involved, even though his wife, Ramona Ripston, led a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California.

Ethics standards may be changing, however. Cornelia Pillard, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, currently handles a spousal conflict of interest more rigorously. She is married to David D. Cole, the national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and recuses herself from any case in which the A.C.L.U. has been involved, whether at a national or local level - and regardless of whether her husband worked on the case.

Gabe Roth, of Fix the Court, said that there is an evident need "for a clearer and more exacting recusal standard at the Supreme Court - especially now, as it's constantly being thrust into partisan battles, and as the public's faith in its impartiality is waning."

Traditionally, judges have not been particularly fastidious about potential conflicts of interest connected to amicus briefs. But that standard may be changing, too. As the number of partisan political issues facing the judicial branch has grown, so has the number of these amicus briefs. Many of them are being filed by opaquely funded dark money groups, whose true financial sponsors are concealed, thus enabling invisible thumbs to press on the scales of justice. Paul M. Collins, Jr.  [local copy], a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has studied the use of amicus briefs, said, "There's been an almost linear increase in the number of them since the World War Two era. Now it's the rare case that doesn't have one." The reason, Paul Collins said, is that, "more and more, the courts are seen as a venue for social change." Collins explained that political groups, many with secret donors, are "using the courts the way they used to use Congress - basically, amicus briefs are a means of lobbying."

The problem has become so widespread that in 2018 the rules for appellate court judges were amended to make it possible for judges to strike any amicus brief that might force them to recuse themselves. There has been no such reckoning at the Supreme Court - not even when close political associates of Ginni Thomas' have filed amicus briefs. One such associate is Frank J. Gaffney, a defense hawk best known for having made feverish claims [conspiracy theories] suggesting that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. Leaked documents show that Frank Gaffney was a colleague of Ginni Thomas' at the Groundswell group as far back as 2013. Frank Gaffney was a proponent of President Trump's reactionary immigration policies, including, most vociferously, of the Trump administration's   Muslim travel ban. As these restrictions were hit by lawsuits, Gaffney's nonprofit, the Center for Security Policy, signed the first of two big contracts with Liberty Consulting. According to documents that Gaffney's group filed with the Internal Revenue Service, in 2017 and 2018 the Center for Security Policy paid Ginni Thomas a total of more than two hundred thousand dollars.

It's not entirely clear where Frank Gaffney's nonprofit Center for Security Policy got the funds to hire Liberty Consulting. (Frank Gaffney didn't respond to interview requests.) But, according to David Armiak  [local copy] - the Research Director at the Center for Media and Democracy, which tracks nonprofit political spending - one of the biggest donors to Frank Gaffney's  Center for Security Policy in 2017 was a pro-Trump political organization, Making America Great, whose chairman, the heiress Rebekah Mercer [see also: Mercer Family Foundation], was among Trump's biggest backers. While two hundred thousand dollars was being passed from Trump backers to Frank Gaffney to Ginni Thomas, the Supreme Court agreed to hear legal challenges to Trump's travel restrictions. In 2017-08 Frank Gaffney and six other advocates submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Trump's travel restrictions, arguing that "the challenge of Islam must be confronted."

That December [2017-12], as the case was still playing out, Ginni Thomas bestowed one of her Impact Awards on Frank Gaffney, introducing him "as an encourager to me and a great friend" but giving no hint that his group was paying her firm [Liberty Consulting]. The Impact Awards ceremony was held at the Trump International Hotel, and, according to another guest, Jerry A. Johnson [then the president of the National Religious Broadcasters], Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was in attendance. Jerry Johnson later recalled that the Supreme Court Justice sat in front of him and was a "happy warrior," pleased to be watching his wife [Ginni Thomas] "running the meeting." Throughout the 2017 and 2018 Supreme Court sessions, as various challenges to Trump's travel restrictions were considered by the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas consistently took a hard pro-Trump line. Finally, in 2018-06 Thomas and four other Supreme Court Justices narrowly upheld the final version of the travel restrictions.

It's impossible to know whether Clarence Thomas was influenced by his wife's lucrative contract with Frank Gaffney, by Gaffney's amicus briefs, or by her celebration of Frank Gaffney at Ginni Thomas' Impact Awards ceremony. Given the Supreme Court Justices's voting history, it's reasonable to surmise that no matter what Clarence Thomas would have supported the travel restrictions. Nevertheless, the lawyers on the losing side of the case surely would have wanted to know about Ginni Thomas' financial contract with Frank Gaffney. Judges, in their annual financial disclosures, are required to report the source of their spouses' incomes. But Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in his financial disclosures in 2017 and 2018, failed to mention the payments to Ginni Thomas from Frank Gaffney's group. Instead, Clarence Thomas put down a curiously low book value for his wife's lobbying firm [Liberty Consulting], claiming in both years [2017; 2018] that her company was worth only between fifteen and fifty thousand dollars.

Gabe Roth, of Fix the Court, said that, at the very least, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas should be asked to amend his financial statements from those years - as he did in 2011, after it became public that he hadn't disclosed the six hundred and eighty-six thousand dollars that his wife had earned at The Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007. Beyond that, Gabe Roth said, "the Justices should, as a rule, disqualify themselves from cases in which a family member or the family member's employer has filed an amicus brief." In Congress, the Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, is pushing for reform. Amicus briefs, Sheldon Whitehouse said, are "a form of lobbying that has two terrible aspects - the interests behind them are hidden, and they are astonishingly effective in terms of the win rate." Sheldon Whitehouse added, "They open up real avenues for secret mischief."

In 2019-01 Ginni Thomas secured for Frank Gaffney the access that her website promises. As Maggie Haberman, of The New York Times, and Jonathan Swan, of Axios, have reported, not long after Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas had a private dinner at the White House with Donald Trump and Melania Trump, the President's staff gave in to a months-long campaign by Ginni Thomas to bring her, Frank Gaffney, and several other associates to the White House to press President Trump on policy and personnel issues. The White House was not informed that Gaffney's group had been paying Liberty Consulting for the previous two years. (Gaffney's group did not report signing a contract with Liberty Consulting for 2019.)

The White House meeting was held in the Roosevelt Room, and by all accounts it was uncomfortable. Ginni Thomas opened by saying that she didn't trust everyone in the room, then pressed President Trump to purge his administration of disloyal members of the "deep state," handing him an enemies list that she and Groundswell had compiled. Some of the participants prayed, warning that gay marriage, which the Supreme Court legalized in 2015  [Obergefell v. Hodges], was undermining morals in America.

One participant said he'd heard that Trump had wanted to humor Ginni Thomas because he was hoping to talk her husband Clarence Thomas into retiring, thus opening up another Supreme Court seat. Trump, given his manifold legal problems, also saw Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas as a potentially important ally - and genuinely liked him. But the participant said that the President considered Ginni Thomas "a wacko," adding, "She never would have been there if not for Clarence. She had access because her last name was Thomas."

Ginni Thomas rarely speaks to mainstream reporters, but she often gives speeches in private forums. The website of the watchdog has posted a video of Ginni Thomas speaking with striking candor. In 2018-10, she led a panel discussion during a confidential session of the Council for National Policy. At the time, the Senate was caught up in the fight over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault. "I'm feeling the pain - Clarence is feeling the pain - of going through false charges against a good man," she said. "I thought it couldn't get worse than Clarence's, but it did." America, she said, "is in a vicious battle for its founding principles," adding, "The deep state is serious, and it's resisting President Trump." She declared twice that her adversaries were trying "to kill people," and drew applause by saying, "May we all have guns and concealed carry to handle what's coming!"

This warlike mentality is shared by Groundswell, the political group that Ginni Thomas has chaired. In a 2020 session of the Council for National PolicyRachel Bovard, the Senior Director of Policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, described meeting weekly with Groundswell members to "vet" officials for disloyalty, saying, "Ginni has been very instrumental in working with the White House. ... She really is the tip of the spear in these efforts." Rachel Bovard lamented Groundswell's failure to weed out the whistle-blower Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman  [Wikipedia: Alexander Vindman] before he gave testimony at the First impeachment of Donald Trump. "We see what happens when we don't vet these people," Rachel Bovard said. "That's how we got Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, O.K.?" Alexander Vindman, then the director for European affairs on Trump's National Security Council, testified that President Trump had tried to pressure Ukraine's leaders into producing dirt on Joe Biden's family. In retaliation, a smear campaign was mounted against Alexander Vindman. He suddenly found himself fending off false claims that he had created a hostile work environment at the National Security Council, and fighting insinuations that, because he was born in Ukraine and had been invited to serve in its government, he had "dual loyalty." (Alexander Vindman had self-reported Ukraine's offer, which he had rejected.) The United States Department of Defense conducted an internal investigation of the accusations against Alexander Vindman, and exonerated him. But, Vindman said, the attacks "harmed my career." Alexander Vindman went on, "It's un-American, frankly, that a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court, who is supposed to be apolitical, would have a wife who is part of a political vendetta to retaliate against officials who were dutifully serving the public interest. It's chilling, and probably has already had an effect on silencing other whistle-blowers."

Another target of Groundswell members was Trump's former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who was deemed insufficiently supportive of President Trump. According to The New York Times, in 2018 Barbara Ledeen  [local copy  |  spouse of Michael Ledeen], a Republican Senate aide who had reportedly developed Groundswell's enemies list with Ginni Thomas, participated in a plot to oust H.R. McMaster by secretly taping him insulting Donald Trump. Barbara Ledeen, who is a close friend of Ginni Thomas, told the The New York Times that she'd merely acted as a messenger in the scheme. The plan was to send an undercover female operative to snare H.R. McMaster at a fancy restaurant. But H.R. McMaster quit before the sting was executed. The New York Times also reported that another undercover operation - which targeted government employees, including F.B.I. agents, suspected of trying to thwart President Trump's agenda - involved operatives from Project Veritas, the undercover-video group led by James O'Keefe. Ginni Thomas has given James O'Keefe an Impact Award, too.

It's unclear whether the Crowdsourcers project that Ginni Thomas said she was launching with James O'Keefe's help ever got off the ground. There's little public trace of Crowdsourcers, other than a tax filing from 2019, showing that it was developed under the oversight of the Capital Research Center, a right-wing nonprofit organization that does research on it's political opposition. Project Veritas' chief legal officer sent The New Yorker a statement saying that O'Keefe's "schedule does not permit such extracurricular activities" as Crowdsourcers. But, in a PowerPoint presentation on the effort, in 2019, Ginni Thomas said that "James O'Keefe wanted to head up" a part of the group aimed at "protecting our heroes." The purpose of Crowdsourcers, she said, was nothing less than saving America. "Our house is on fire!" she went on. "And we are stomping ants in the driveway. We're not really focussed on the arsonists who are right around us!"

Last year [2021], Project Veritas asked the Supreme Court to hear its challenge to the Massachusetts ban on surreptitiously taping public officials. The Supreme Court turned down Project Veritas' petition, as it does with most such requests. Nevertheless, David Carter Dinielli  [local copy  |  see also], a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, said that Ginni Thomas' proclaimed political partnership with James O'Keefe, and her awarding of a prize to O'Keefe, appeared to be unethical. "That's what the code of conduct is supposed to control," David Dinielli said.

Ginni Thomas has held so many leadership or advisory positions at conservative advocacy groups that it's hard to keep track of them. And many, if not all, of these groups have been involved in cases that have come before her husband, Clarence Thomas. Ginni Thomas' website lists the National Association of Scholars - the group that has filed an amicus briefs in the lawsuit against Harvard University - among her "endorsed charities." The National Association of Scholars' amicus brief claims that the affirmative-action policies used by the Harvard University admissions department are discriminatory. Though the plaintiffs have already lost in two lower courts, they are counting on the Supreme Court's new conservative supermajority to side with them, even though doing so would reverse decades of precedent. Peter W. Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, is another of Ginni Thomas' Impact Award recipient. So, too, is Robert P. George, a legal scholar at Princeton University who, according to the National Association of Scholars' website, serves with Ginni Thomas on its advisory board. (Robert P. George says that he has "not been active" on National Association of Scholars' advisory board.) Robert P. George received a "Lifetime" Impact Award from Ginni Thomas in 2019, and recently filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court, in support of Mississippi's ban on nearly all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy  [see also: anti-abortion movements  |  Texas Heartbeat Act of 2021].

In 2020-04, when Ginni Thomas was serving as one of eight members on the board of Council for National Policy Action (C.N.P. Action), that board was chaired by Kelly Shackelford  [local copy], the President and C.E.O. of the First Liberty Institute, a faith-based litigation group that is currently involved in several major cases before the Supreme Court. Last week [2022-01], to the surprise of many observers, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the First Liberty Institute is defending a football coach at a public high school in Washington State who was fired for kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games. Richard B. Katskee  [local copy  |  LinkedIn  |  local copy], the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is defending the school board, said that the case was "huge," and could overturn fifty years of settled law. Kelly Shackelford's group First Liberty Institute is also the co-initiator of another case before the Supreme Court: a challenge to a Maine law prohibiting the state from using public funds to pay parochial school tuition for students living in areas far from public schools. In addition to these cases, First Liberty has filed lawsuits that challenge COVID-19 restrictions on religious grounds - an issue that has come before the Supreme Court - and Ginni Thomas and Kelly Shackelford have served together on the steering committee of the Save Our Country Coalition  [local copy | FreedomWorks | American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  |  Tea Party Patriots  |  Committee to Unleash American Prosperity], which has called COVID-19 health mandates "unconstitutional power grabs." In a phone interview, Kelly Shackelford said that he couldn't see why Ginni Thomas' work with him posed a conflict of interest for Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. "It's no big deal, if you look at the law on this," he said. It would be different, he argued, if there were a financial interest involved, or if she were arguing First Liberty's cases before the Supreme Court herself - but, Shackelford said, "almost everyone in America is connected through six degrees of separation."

Another of Ginni Thomas' fellow-directors on the Council for National Policy Action board in 2020 was Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who is tied to one of the most consequential gun cases currently under consideration by the Supreme Court. In 2020, Ken Blackwell was on the National Rifle Association of America's board of directors, and at the time the gun group's official affiliate in New York State was challenging the New York's restrictions on carrying firearms in public spaces. Earlier this term, the Supreme Court heard a related challenge, and a decision is expected later this year [2022]. (Ken Blackwell didn't respond to an interview request.) Meanwhile, the website currently boasts that a winner of its youth competition had the opportunity to meet with "the wife of current Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas."

For lawyers involved in cases before the Supreme Court, it can be deeply disturbing to know that Ginni Thomas is an additional opponent. In 2019, David Dinielli, the visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, was a deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had submitted an amicus briefs in a gay-rights case before the Supreme Court. David Dinielli said he was acutely aware that Ginni Thomas and other members of the Council for National Policy loathed the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing hate groups. In 2017, C.N.P. Action directed its members to "commit to issuing one new post on Facebook and Twitter each week about the Southern Poverty Law Center to discredit them." In Ginni Thomas' leaked 2018 speech to the Council for National Policy, Ginni Thomas denounced the Southern Poverty Law Center for calling the Family Research Council - which is militantly opposed to LGBTQ rights - a hate group.

For David Dinielli, the idea that a Supreme Court Justice's spouse belonged to a group that had urged its members to repeatedly attack his organization (Southern Poverty Law Center) was "counter to everything you'd expect if you want to get a fair shake" before the Supreme Court. David Dinielli explained, "These activities aren't just political. They're aimed at raising up or denigrating actors specifically in front of the Supreme Court. She's one step away from holding up a sign in front of her husband saying 'This person is a pedophile.' "

David Dinielli went on, "The Justices sit literally above where the lawyers are. For these people to do the job they were tasked with, they have to maintain that level. But this degrades it, mocks it, and threatens it." He warned, "Since the Supreme Court doesn't have an army, it relies on how it behaves to command respect. Once the veneer cracks, it's very hard to get it back."

Additional Reading

  • [, 2022-01-27] How Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, influences the Supreme CourtThe New Yorker writer Jane Mayer discusses the conservative beliefs and influence of Virginia "Ginni" Lamp Thomas, an activist who's been associated with some groups involved in the 2021-01-06 2021 United States Capitol attack.

  • [, 2019-06-04] Virginia "Ginni" Thomas Plans New Conservative Supergroup to "Protect President Trump".  With the help of a who's who of conservative activists, the Supreme Court justice's wife aims to open up a new front in America's political wars.

  • [, 2019-01-26] Trump Meets With Hard-Right Group [Groundswell] Led by Virginia "Ginni" Thomas.

  • [, 2013-07-25] Inside Groundswell: Read the Memos of the New Right-Wing Strategy Group Planning a "30 Front War".  Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, Allen West, and a crew of conservative activists and journalists have formed a hush-hush coalition to battle progressives-and Karl Rove.

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