The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justice Thomas’s wife is a political extremist. This is now a problem for the court.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia Thomas. (Drew Angerer/Getty)
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It is no revelation that conservative activist Virginia Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, is a political extremist. But The Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News’s Robert Costa showed just how close she was to President Donald Trump’s plotting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol ransacking. The disturbing revelations only deepen the threat her entanglements pose to the court’s legitimacy.

Mr. Woodward and Mr. Costa revealed Thursday 29 text messages between Ms. Thomas and Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as Mr. Trump sought the Supreme Court’s help to reverse the election. “We are living through what feels like the end of America,” she wrote four days after Jan. 6 — but not in reference to the rioters who called for then-Vice President Mike Pence’s blood. “Most of us are disgusted with the VP and are in listening mode to see where to fight with our teams,” she said, indicating that she wished Mr. Pence had illegally overturned the election results.

Ms. Thomas flooded Mr. Meadows’s phone with bizarre far-right conspiracy theories about ballot watermarks, secret military operations and the possibility of locking up Democrats and journalists on barges off Guantánamo Bay.

The House committee investigating Jan. 6 obtained the texts from Mr. Meadows before he stopped cooperating with the panel. The 29 messages appear to be just a portion of the communications between the two, meaning there might be more that the panel will seek to force Mr. Meadows to turn over. The texts also suggest Ms. Thomas was in touch with others in the Trump White House, communications the committee will likely want to see.

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This raises questions about Justice Thomas’s refusal to recuse himself from cases involving Jan. 6. In one text, Ms. Thomas talked about having a conversation with her “best friend,” apparently about the election fight. Did Ms. Thomas influence her husband’s thinking? Did Justice Thomas decline to recuse because he did not want to reveal the depth of his wife’s involvement? Justice Thomas was the only member of the court who voted against turning over White House communications to the committee.

For years, Justice Thomas’s critics have argued he should recuse himself more often from cases to which his wife has connections. Also that Congress should impose strict ethics rules on Supreme Court justices. This is harder than it sounds. Unlike in lower courts, no one can sit in for justices who have recused themselves. Also, many outstanding potential justices have professionally active spouses; they should not feel as though they must ask their partners to quit in order to serve.

Unfortunately, Ms. Thomas has abused the good faith others have offered her husband, pushing the limits of the ethical gray areas these considerations create. Justice Thomas must recuse himself whenever his wife has a financial stake in a case. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported that Ms. Thomas took more than $200,000 from right-wing activist Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy as Mr. Gaffney asked the court to uphold Mr. Trump’s Muslim ban, which Justice Thomas voted to do. Justice Thomas must also recuse himself from cases that could substantially affect his wife in other ways. That includes litigation regarding the Jan. 6 committee, which is examining Ms. Thomas’s communications.

Americans should expect more. The best way for the court to avoid further erosion of public faith — and congressional intervention — is for the justices to set a higher example.

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