By Robert Barnes and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A03
Into the heightened political atmosphere between the Supreme Court and the Obama administration comes now Virginia Thomas, the conservative activist and wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, who is founder of a new nonprofit lobbying and political-organizing group catering to the "citizen activists" of the "tea party" movement.
Virginia "Ginni" Thomas says Liberty Central Inc. will educate motivated citizens to "preserve freedom and reaffirm the core founding principles," according to the group's Web site, and will serve as a way for concerned Americans to "make a difference in the fight for liberty and against the liberal Washington agenda."
Virginia Thomas did not return calls on Monday. But she said in an interview with a conservative blogger at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee last month that she had left her job working for a small college because of her concern that the country is off-track.
"We've got to get the Constitution back to a place where it means something . . . or we're headed for tyranny," she told blogger Ed Morrissey.
Thomas's group was founded in January and she promoted it at the CPAC convention. But it was not until this past weekend, after a story in the Los Angeles Times, that awareness of the new organization prompted a debate about the involvement of a justice's spouse in a political movement.
It comes at a time of increased sensitivity between the White House and congressional Democrats on one side and the court's conservative majority on the other. It started with President Obama's unusually blunt criticism of the court during his State of the Union address, when he lambasted the court's 5 to 4 ruling that gave corporations and unions greater leeway to use their general treasuries to buy ads for and against political candidates.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said last week that Obama's use of the address to criticize the court -- six of the nine black-robed justices were at the front of the House chamber -- was "very troubling." Roberts questioned whether the court should continue to attend what he described as a "political pep rally."
The White House responded with a renewed broadside, and Obama has said he was working with Congress to try to temper the effects of the decision, which he said would allow special interests to bankroll American elections.
A court spokeswoman said Justice Thomas would not comment on his wife's new endeavor or how he might recuse himself should a conflict arise.
Justices make their own decisions about removing themselves from cases and usually do not explain why. Most typically, they recuse themselves when they have a financial interest in an issue before them, or when a decision could affect a family member.
Sue Hamblen, Liberty Central's national coordinator, said Virginia Thomas met with ethics officials for the federal courts and was told her work "was in no way a conflict of interest."
"She did not give up her First Amendment rights when her husband became a Supreme Court judge," Hamblen said.
Hamblen said that the group is nonpartisan and does not intend to make endorsements in political campaigns but that it will issue "scorecards" ranking candidates on conservative issues.
"We are very seriously not Republican or Democrat; we are conservative," Hamblen said. "Our intent is to remain nonpolitical except in terms of furthering the core principles of the founding fathers."
Liberty Central, which is organized as a nonprofit, is free to raise unlimited amounts of money and is generally not required to disclose its donors. Hamblen said the group has "received a lot of donations over the last couple days," mostly from small donors.
Hamblen said the group is not formally affiliated with the conservative "tea party" groups that have sprouted across the nation over the past year to protest the Obama administration's fiscal policies. The group conducted a joint online poll in January with one of the largest such groups, Tea Party Patriots, whose leaders also issued a statement of support for Thomas's new venture.
The LibertyCentral.org Web site also lists an endorsement from former defense secretary Donald M. Rumsfeld, who says that "Ginni can help channel the frustration felt by millions across America at the current course of our country."
Virginia Thomas's biography on the site says she "is a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham and other talk radio hosts," and that she is "is intrigued by Glenn Beck and listening carefully."
A longtime political activist, she has worked for former House Republican leader Richard A. Armey (Tex.), the conservative Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She most recently worked in Washington for Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan.
Hamblen said other judges have had politically active spouses. For instance, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia is married to Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell. Following the judicial Committee on Codes of Conduct, Marjorie Rendell does not accompany her husband to political events. But she presides over other events as first lady.
She seeks guidance from the committee over potential conflicts, and has a policy of recusing herself from a case in which a party has made a hefty contribution to her husband's campaign, unless both sides agree to waive the disqualification.
In California, Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recuses himself in cases brought by the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is headed by his wife, Ramona Ripston.