Justice Clarence Thomas probably had a ho-hum day on June 7, 2010. From time to time, the Supreme Court of the United States makes historic decisions, but on that day, it didn’t. It handed down three noncontroversial rulings, and in all of them, Justice Thomas voted, non controversially, with the majority.
His wife, on the other hand, started the day in a blaze of publicity. Virginia Lamp Thomas, known to all as Ginni, appeared that morning on Sean Hannity’s Fox show. Wearing a TV-red jacket, Thomas bantered with Hannity about the “tyranny” President Barack Obama and his party are inflicting on the country. Then Thomas, who had recently launched a nonprofit called Liberty Central, sounded a dire warning. “We are in a fight for our country’s life,” she said. “We’ve all got to do whatever we can.” Channeling Tea Party rhetoric, she called on conservative voters to give money, sign petitions, and, in November, overthrow those who are turning “citizens” into “subjects.”
It’s like a Hollywood movie. One spouse goes off to work at the Supreme Court, that most august of institutions, where formality and discretion reign. The other puts on her power suit—and occasionally, a foam Lady Liberty crown—and enters the raucous, chaotic world of Tea Party politics and Fox News pontificating. Ever since Ginni Thomas launched Liberty Central with $550,000 in November 2009, she has become a rising star in the constellation of conservative pundits. According to its Web site, Liberty Central is a nonpartisan educational group devoted to reviving America’s “Founding Principles—limited government, personal responsibility, individual liberty, free enterprise, and national security.” It offers scorecards on politicians, a petition against tax increases, and testimonials about the benefits of grassroots activism. (Both Thomases declined to comment for this story.)
More modulated that your average Tea Partier, Ginni Thomas hits her talking points with the poise of someone at home in the world of conservative politics and policy—as she has been, for decades. A lawyer, former staffer for the Republican congressman Dick Armey, and a former director at the Heritage Foundation, she speaks of herself as a bridge between the Republican establishment and the crowds rallying out of anger and frustration.
Her overt disgust with Obama and Liberty’s political tone have caused some on the left to wonder whether her new job puts her in conflict with her husband’s claims to impartiality. “Before it’s too late,” warned the syndicated radio columnist Bill Press, “either Mr. Thomas or Mrs. Thomas should step aside and find another job.” But barring the appearance of Clarence Thomas at a Tea Party rally, even reasonable critics can’t find any ethical impropriety in Ginni’s public role. “I may not agree with Ginni Thomas on any policy issue, but what she’s doing seems—if I can’t say utterly commendable one could certainly say utterly proper in a democracy,” says David Garrow, a historian at Cambridge University. Ginni Thomas is not litigating cases that might end up before the court, nor is she covering the court for a newspaper. This is no big deal, agrees Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog: married couples often have two big jobs between them. “This is a really ironic place for liberals to be,” he says. “They’re giving the impression that a woman can’t have her own independent standing.” In the event that Liberty Central is named as a party in a case that comes before the court, Justice Thomas will have to recuse himself—just as Stephen Reinhardt, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, did in cases brought by the Southern California branch of the ACLU. His wife, Ramona Ripston, ran that branch for 38 years.
Further, the belief that “impartiality” in Supreme Court justices means having no political or ideological opinions is, of course, a fantasy. Clarence Thomas has always been a conservative. “When he and Ginni met, they developed an almost instantaneous intellectual connection based on their mutual commitment to essential conservative ideals,” remembers Hal Daub, the former congressman from Nebraska who was Ginni’s first boss on the Hill. “I think they clicked because they shared this set of views about a conservative—and if you will—more strict interpretation of the Constitution.” Long before Liberty Central, in other words, both Thomases held conservative political beliefs and worked tenaciously to promote them.
Liberals may not like Ginni—or Clarence—Thomas, but it’s hard not to see her ascendancy as a good thing. In previous generations, Supreme Court wives served as “hostesses or recluses,” observes Dennis Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “Politically adroit, well educated, sophisticated, they knew how and where to wear the white gloves.” A new biography of Justice William Brennan by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel unveils the agonies of Brennan’s wife, Marjorie. Her husband was named to the highest court, and she fell into alcoholism: “the feelings of isolation and inadequacy she experienced in Washington only exacerbated the problem.”
Three female justices now sit on the court: the role of the justice’s spouse has got to change, too. When in 1986 Good Housekeeping named Ginni Thomas one of 28 young women of promise, she said she hoped to run for Congress one day. The only hurdle was “finding a husband who’ll be supportive of a woman in public life.” She married him the next year. According to his friends, Clarence Thomas has a favorite expression, one he usually reserves for the people who work for him. “When you have a racehorse,” he likes to say, “you’ve got to let her run.”
With Johannah Cornblatt
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.