Ginni Thomas is not the first wife of a Supreme Court judge to make headlines

The nation’s highest tribunal is normally tied to precedent. For the sake of the stability of the law and to maintain its own legitimacy, the Supreme Court tries to avoid decisions that would cloud legal interpretations if they were changed every few years. The current controversy over the partisan political activities of Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasJared Kushner was expecting a Jan 6 panel interview this week: Ginni Thomas texts report GOP lawmakers scramble Schumer says Thomas should pull himself MORE‘s wife, Virginia, raises an intriguing question about a different kind of precedent: whether husbands of past judges have engaged in questionable personal or professional conduct.

The modern era of Supreme Court nomination battles began with President Woodrow Wilson’s appointment of the first Jewish judge, Louis Brandeis, in 1916. His progressive ideals, combined with his religious affiliation, made him a clear target for conservatives and anti-Semites alike. Known as “the People’s Advocate,” he shared his liberal ideology with Alice Goldmark Brandeis, his wife, and her sister, Josephine, an activist in the National Consumers League.

Ms. Brandeis continued to champion progressive causes even after her husband’s appointment to the court. In their Washington home, they often met in salons where fellow liberals discussed public policy. In the 1924 presidential race, Alice Brandeis supported the candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, who headed what was considered a radical Progressive Party ticket. La Follette offered Justice Brandeis the vice presidential nomination, but he declined.

Ms. Brandeis joined other liberal stalwarts, including her husband’s ally and future Supreme Court justice, Harvard Law professor Felix Frankfurter, in defending two Italian immigrant anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Venzetti, charged with murder and armed robbery in Massachusetts. She provided shelter for Sacco’s family at the Brandeis’ home near Boston. During America’s first Red Scare, supporting leftists was indeed a bold act.

Like Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black inherited an activist sister-in-law by marrying his first wife, Josephine. Her sister, Virginia Durr, would co-founded the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) with Hugo, founded in 1938, the year President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Black to the Supreme Court. The new justice attended the SCHW’s first meeting in Birmingham, Ala. The interracial organization advocated social, economic and political equality for African Americans as a way to move the South forward. It disbanded a decade later when the second Red Scare began targeting civil rights groups. Virginia and her husband Clifford, a Roosevelt New Dealer and fellow progressive activist, maintained close ties to Justice and Mrs. Black, especially to support Josephine, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression, which may have led to her untimely death in 1951.

Five years later, Justice Black married his secretary, Elizabeth DeMeritte. Although he was a widower, his 1957 Washington marriage was somewhat scandalous as he was 71 and his new bride, a divorcee, was 49. composed, and disagreements he had with his colleagues. He also told her that one of Judge Robert Jackson’s clerks, William Rehnquist, had prepared a memo in support of the court’s “separate but equal” precedent of 1896 during the deliberations of the justices of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned racial segregation in public schools.

Ms. Black was reluctant to raise the issue when President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist for promotion from associate justice to chief justice in 1986. Although Justice Black had died in 1971, she was concerned that revealing his intimate conversations with her would spark the gossip. around their May-December romance. Justice William Douglas apparently harbored no such concerns; he married four times, and his last two wives were college students when the courtship began. Critics, including Senator Bob Dole, questioned Douglas’ moral character and “bad judgment from a marital standpoint.”

More typical of Supreme Court marriages in the mid-20th century were those that reflected the traditional societal norms of the era. Like the wives of members of Congress, the wives of the judges tended to devote themselves to charitable activities, promoting the arts, housework and supporting their husbands’ careers. Several times a year, the judges’ wives gathered for lunch in a room designated by the court as the “Ladies’ Dining Room.” Judge Tom Clark’s daughter recalls that her father was so careful with the integrity of the judicial process that he did not discuss matters with her mother, and he famously withdrew from court when their son Ramsey became Attorney General in 1967. became important in order to avoid conflict.

Civil rights advocate Thurgood Marshall replaced Clark and became the first black Supreme Court justice. His first wife, Vivian, also a civil rights activist, had died nine years earlier, just after Marshall’s landmark victory as the NAACP’s lead attorney in the Brown case. Shortly after, he introduced Cecelia Suyat, an NAACP stenographer, who shared his goals for achieving racial equality.

Initially, Cecelia rejected Marshall’s marriage proposal, fearing that her Filipino-Hawaiian heritage would make her a “foreigner” among blacks and whites. She gave in to his pleas and left her job to marry Marshall and raise their two sons. While serving in the government, first as an appellate judge in the US, then as an attorney general, and finally as a judge on the Supreme Court, Ms. Marshall was careful to limit her friendships with civil rights advocates to avoid conflict of interest charges. to prevent.

The 1960s ushered in a new era for Supreme Court spouses when Abe Fortas took a seat on the tribunal. His wife, Carolyn Agger, a former New Dealer and self-sufficient attorney, opposed his acceptance of the appointment, severely reducing their family income as senior partners in the prestigious Washington firm of Arnold, Fortas, and Porter.

Justice Black assured Fortas that he would not have to back down from business because of Agger’s tax law practice, and as President Lyndon Johnson twisted his arm, Fortas reluctantly accepted the nomination. Ironically, Justice Fortas’ continued advisory role at LBJ and the receipt of money from a discredited financier forced him out of court in 1969.

The first two female nominees, Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, turned the gender model on its head. Their attorney husbands supported — and even advocated for — their respective appointments and continued to practice law in Washington after their wives made history by taking their seats at the pinnacle of the federal judiciary. Ginsburg was criticized for not backing herself into cases involving her husband Marty’s law firm. The arrival of two male husbands to the tradition-bound court prompted the judges to rename the Ladies’ Dining Room for Natalie Cornell Rehnquist, the late wife of the Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court, sometimes referred to as the “Marble Temple,” is anything but a monastery or monastery, isolated from the mores of society. The judges’ marriages and spouses have represented the political and social contours of their eras. The left, right and center positions on the ideological spectrum are all represented on the bench and in the homes of Supreme Court justices.

But however these jurists interpret the Constitution, we should expect them and their families to support our founding document, the republic that created it, and the processes that govern us. As the recent and unprecedented drop in public approval by the Supreme Court to 40 percent indicates, the tribunal would do well to heed the comment of former Judge David Souter (a lifelong bachelor by the way): “The power of the court is the power of earned trust—the trust of the American people.”

Barbara A. Perry is director of presidential studies and Gerald L. Baliles professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. She served as a fellow on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994-95. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA

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