Don’t condemn Clarence Thomas for his wife’s actions

“The days when a woman’s opinion was the same as her husband’s are long gone.”

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, argued in 2013. If the professor’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s been quoted by seemingly every major media outlet since the news last week that Virginia Thomas, the wife of Judge Clarence Thomas, sent text messages to Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, urging him to fight the 2020 election results.

The Los Angeles Times described Mr. Gillers as a “legal ethics scholar” and The New York Times called him “one of the foremost experts on legal ethics.” But it turns out that professor’s ethics, like those of many liberal Democrats today, are situational. In 2013, he defended a decision by the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals not to withdraw from a case involving the American Civil Liberties Union, even though Reinhart’s wife, Ramona Ripston, served as executive director of the ACLU for Southern California.

“Madam. Ripston’s views, positions, and public statements of support for the district court’s opinion . . . create no reasonable basis for doubting Judge Reinhardt’s ability to honor his oath of office,” a friend of the court claimed on behalf of Mr Gillers and four others “An opposite outcome would deem a judge’s spouse unable to occupy an advocacy position, amounting to a marriage penalty.”

Reinhardt had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most liberal judges in one of the country’s most liberal courts of appeal. That could explain why Mr. Gillers and his partisan allies have changed their tone. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not an acceptable strategy for the Thomases’ marriage,” he now tells reporters. “Both have crossed a line and deserve no benefit of the doubt.”

Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt’s wife was an ACLU executive director.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, Pool, File

For anyone not wearing ideological blinders, Judge Thomas and his wife deserve the benefit of the doubt as much as Reinhardt and his wife. And there are other examples. Judge Cornelia Pillard of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is married to David Cole, ACLU National Legal Director. The husband of Alice Batchelder, a sixth circuit judge, served as speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Marjorie Rendell was an appellate judge when her husband, Ed, was governor of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. When these judges had to withdraw from a conflict of interest case, it was entrusted to them.

Facts and fiction

Judge Thomas’ critics want to hold him not so much to a higher standard as to a different standard. Important cases related to abortion, gun control, affirmative action and religious freedom are on the agenda for the Supreme Court this year. The goal of the left is to reduce its influence – and by extension the influence of the conservative wing of the court. And since the target is Judge Thomas, who has deserted his ideological opponents for the past 30 years, the thought is that anything goes.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas as he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has earned the benefit of the doubt as the longest serving member of the court.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is charged with demanding former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows try to undo the results of the 2020 presidential election.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

“The facts are clear here,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told ABC News on Sunday. “You have the wife of a sitting Supreme Court judge pleading for an insurrection.” No, those aren’t the facts, unless the senator knows something the rest of us don’t. No evidence has been made public that Ms. Thomas called for violence or had anything to do with the looting of the Capitol by Trump supporters. Merging her with those who did is a slander. All we know is that she urged Mr. Meadows to “stay firm” against what she believed was an election heist. If a case goes to court involving Ms. Thomas or her activities, Judge Thomas can make a decision on a challenge at that time.

Perhaps more disturbingly, Ms. Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sounded like she was threatening Chief Justice John Roberts to take the orders of her fellow Democrats in Congress. “All I’m hearing is Supreme Court silence at the moment, and that better change in the coming week,” she said. “Not only must [Justice Thomas] withdraw, but this Supreme Court urgently needs ethical rules.”

sen.  Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., questions Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
sen. Amy Klobuchar unleashes a witch hunt against Supreme Court Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows
Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is said to have sent text messages to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Nov. 10, 2020.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

The Chief Justice has made it no secret that he cares deeply about the reputation of the court. One way to damage that reputation would be to bend to the politics and passions of the day in the way that people like Ms. Klobuchar suggest.

Clarence Thomas is the longest serving member of the court and has been consistent in his case law over the decades. We rely on judges to conduct themselves with professionalism and integrity when it comes to recusal decisions, and Justice Thomas has earned our trust.

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