Monday, November 15, 2010; 3:11 PM
I'm a little surprised to be writing this, but I sort of feel sorry for Ginni Thomas. The wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ginni has just announced that she will be relinquishing control of Liberty Central, a grass-roots organization she founded earlier this year to serve as a clearinghouse for conservative and Tea Party policy initiatives. Her work immediately raised questions about the propriety of a justice's wife working in so partisan an atmosphere and about whether her activism might affect the husband's judgment. The Thomases are not the first power couple to face perception challenges in Small Town Washington. Take, for example, the fine line that must be walked by a wife who is an official at a regulatory agency where the husband routinely represents clients. Or an elected official whose portfolio includes issues on which his spouse lobbies. Usually, disclosure is the best antiseptic; officials can refuse to participate in cases involving their spouses or the spouses can decline to represent clients before tribunals where their significant others have sway. While sacrifices in individual cases may be necessary, neither of the parties is permanently enjoined from doing his or her job. The case is even trickier, I think, when one of the spouses is a Supreme Court justice. Every issue that she works on has the potential to land at the high court. Justice Thomas likely would not be required to recuse himself from a case unless his wife or Liberty Central had a direct interest in that specific matter. But how would it look if he had a hand in deciding the constitutionality of health care reform -- a proposal that Liberty Central has strenuously attacked? What about a legal challenge -- if it is passes -- to the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Liberty Central's website dubs "the Job Killing, Trial Lawyers Bonanza Act." Justice Thomas may have a clear conscience in weighing these issues, but critics would argue with some credibility that he does not have "clean hands." So, what happens? Ginni Thomas steps aside as CEO of Liberty Central. A spokesperson for the group said the decision was made so that "Liberty Central can continue with its mission without any of the distractions." (I doubt that Justice Thomas offered to ease the tensions by stepping down from his job.) You can bet that Ginni's tenure would not have been as distracting had she not been married to one of only nine people in this country who decide what the law is. She didn't help matters much last month when she asked Anita Hill to apologize for alleging in 1991 that she had been sexually harassed by then-nominee Thomas. In the end, Ginni's foray into political activism may have been misguided from the start, but I can't help but feel some sympathy for someone who has to essentially lower her voice because of a spouse's job.