The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There is a new champion in the ‘what if the left did it’ competition

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, watches Amy Coney Barrett take the constitutional oath on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 26, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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I’m going to present to you a hypothetical that will seem wildly over the top, a situation that might strike you as a quintessential straw man. But I assure you that there is a point.

Imagine a liberal Supreme Court justice, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993. Really, though, liberal doesn’t sufficiently convey her ideology. She’s hard-left, regularly an exception in court decisions in a way that reflects that stance. In public appearances, she makes her predilections clear, if often only obliquely.

Her husband, however, makes his politics far more explicit. He’s a public activist, promoting and assisting a range of far-left organizations and personalities. The sorts of organizations that are considered well to the left of the norm even among left-leaning organizations. A Planned Parenthood affiliate fundraises by explicitly offering the chance to meet “the husband of a Supreme Court justice.” Apparently thanks to his wife’s position, he finagles an audience with President Biden, bringing along others from the leftist fringe. There, he insists that Biden fire disloyal people in his administration and, to aid that cause, hands over a list of names.

His efforts include working with organizations that have a stake in decisions before the court, though his wife, the justice, doesn’t recuse herself. That includes an occasion on which he was being paid by a far-left organization that filed an amicus brief on a case under consideration before the court. That payment wasn’t revealed publicly.

At another point, this husband gives a speech opining on the nomination process for another liberal justice. He tells his audience that his political opponents are trying to “kill people” and encourages them to carry firearms. In the past, he’s argued that the country is imperiled by the “fascist” right. Then there was the time he advocated creating an organization aimed at “focus[ing] on the arsonists who are right around us” — those who, in his eyes, were seeking to undermine the country.

And who can forget when, on the morning of the day that an armed mob overran the U.S. Capitol with the goal of seizing a second term in office for Biden despite his losing an election, the justice’s husband offered his effusive public support for those who came to Washington to protest.

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Here you can see how the analogy breaks down. There is no real comparison between the tactics and energy on the far left and the far right, particularly now. There are certainly anarchists and rabble-rousers on the left who aim to disrupt society and reshape power. But it has long been the case that the center of gravity in right-wing politics has been closer to the margins than has the center of gravity in left-wing politics. There are huge investments in far-right causes and voices that simply aren’t matched on the left.

One of the beneficiaries of that ecosystem is Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas. She’s the analogue for the husband in the fictional scenario above; the actions and statements I attributed to him were actually ones attributable to her. In a lengthy piece for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer walks through them all, painting a portrait of a person at a unique nexus in American politics. Ginni Thomas is both deeply enmeshed in the most conservative part of the conservative media-cultural-political ecosystem — and the vocal spouse of perhaps the most ideologically stringent member of the Supreme Court.

Mayer’s piece dances around the question of how much influence Ginni Thomas has over her husband. She cites a 1991 Washington Post article from the time of Thomas’s nomination in which an old friend describes Ginni as the one person her husband “really listens to.”

“He depends on her for advice,” the friend added.

Perhaps that is not still the case. Perhaps the Thomases have implemented some sort of firewall between her activism and his litigating. If that’s so, it’s porous. Mayer delineates a number of occasions on which Ginni Thomas has been linked to groups that are weighing in on decisions before the court and puts Clarence Thomas at politically centered events run by his wife. In late 2017, for example, he reportedly attended a ceremony — held at Donald Trump’s D.C. hotel, naturally — in which his wife’s organization presented an award to the far-right activist Frank Gaffney. Gaffney’s organization was paying Ginni Thomas at the time, Mayer reports, even as a case for which his group had filed an amicus brief was under consideration by the Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter on the court’s decision to reject Trump’s argument that internal communications from his administration centered on the Jan. 6 riot should be withheld from the House committee investigating that attack. In the aftermath of the attack, Ginni Thomas was a subject of new scrutiny, having expressed her robust support that morning for those in Washington to protest the election results. Rumors spread that she’d played some role in bringing people to the city, though those were unfounded. But it’s a reminder of how having a blurry line between a jurist and an activist can be fraught: If Trump’s administration had been in communication with Ginni Thomas about the day’s rallies, then what?

Experts with whom Mayer spoke suggest processes for and examples of separating out the Thomas’s conflicts, none of which seems likely to be taken up with much urgency. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has fretted over the perception of the court as political, a perception that the Thomases certainly don’t help to erode.

It’s useful to consider this question through the hackneyed imagine the shoe on the other foot framing. If the situation described at the outset of this article was, in fact, the case, it’s incredibly hard to believe that it would have progressed for years without much attention and with little expressed consternation about the situation. In part, that’s a function of the differing approaches the political left and political right apply to such controversies; Fox News would be running on this 24-7 until something shifted. In part, it’s simply hard to believe it would have advanced so far in the first place.

We use these thought experiments, though, for a point. If you are sympathetic to Thomas’s politics, would you have simply shrugged if confronted with that scenario in which her actions were attributed to the political left?