Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Morning: The Ginni Thomas question

And the latest news from Ukraine.

February 22, 2022

Good morning. We have a Times investigation of Ginni and Clarence Thomas — as well as the latest news from Ukraine.

Ginni Thomas at the Heritage Foundation.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

'Brings disrespect'

Early in the Reagan administration, several Christian conservative leaders founded a group called the Council for National Policy. It soon turned into what my colleague David Kirkpatrick has described as "a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country." One of its main functions was introducing political activists to wealthy donors who could finance their work.

After Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, the group's political arm, known as C.N.P. Action, sprang into action. It encouraged its members to spread stories about "election irregularities and issues" in five swing states that Joe Biden had won narrowly. The goal was to persuade Republican state legislators to adopt Trump's false claims about election fraud — and then award their states' electoral votes to him, overturning Biden's victory.

One vocal proponent of the effort was a C.N.P. board member who had spent decades in conservative politics. In the lead-up to the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol, she reportedly mediated between feuding factions so that they would work together to plan it. On the day of the rally, she posted a message on Facebook: "GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING!"

This board member's name is Ginni Thomas, and she is married to Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court. Today, The Times Magazine has published an investigation of Ginni Thomas's work and its connections to her husband, written by Danny Hakim and Jo Becker.

I recognize that conflict-of-interest questions involving the work of spouses can be difficult to resolve. On the one hand, people generally deserve the right to have their own careers, separate from their spouses'. On the other hand, the privilege of being a top government official seems to call for a higher standard of neutrality than most jobs would.

But I don't think you need to resolve that debate to be concerned about the Thomases' recent actions. You simply need to acknowledge this: The spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice played an active role in an effort to overturn the result of a presidential election, hand victory to the loser and unravel American democracy.

That Supreme Court justice, in turn, seemed to endorse the effort. When Trump's attempt to undo the election's outcome came before the Supreme Court, six of the nine justices ruled against him. But Thomas was one of three justices who sided with Trump and, his dissent echoed the arguments of C.N.P. Action, as Danny and Jo explain. Thomas effectively argued for giving partisan state legislators more control over elections and their outcomes.

Roberts vs. Thomas

The Times Magazine story has more details, including:

  • After the Jan. 6 rally turned into a violent attack on the Capitol, C.N.P. advised its members to defend the rioters. And Thomas herself signed a letter criticizing the House committee investigating the attack. The investigation, the letter said, "brings disrespect to our country's rule of law" and "legal harassment to private citizens who have done nothing wrong." (Ginni Thomas also made baseless accusations of election fraud in 2018, The Washington Post has reported.)
  • The Thomases have used his position as a justice to advance her causes as an operative. During the Trump presidency, White House aides were surprised when Justice Thomas brought an uninvited guest — his wife — to a scheduled lunch with the president.

I also recommend a recent New Yorker article on the couple, by Jane Mayer. It notes that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from some conflict-of-interest rules that apply to all other judges. In reporting the story, Mayer uncovered previously unknown payments to Ginni Thomas from conservative activists — including a group involved in a case before the Supreme Court.

The result, Mayer told NPR, is "the appearance of a conflict of interest that undermines the public confidence that the court is ruling in favor of justice rather than in favor of a justice's pocketbook."

I'm especially struck that the Thomases have been willing to mix Supreme Court cases with both their own finances and partisan politics at a time when the justices seem so worried about the court's image.

Several justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have recently given speeches insisting that the justices are neutral arbiters of the law rather than partisan figures. Justice Stephen Breyer has argued that the court's authority depends on "a trust that the court is guided by legal principle, not politics," and Justice Amy Coney Barrett has said, "This court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks."

Justice Thomas has made a version of this argument himself, saying that a justice is not "like a politician" who makes a decision based on "personal preference." His actions send a different message, though. They seem to acknowledge that the court is indeed a political body.


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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. The Times won two George Polk Awards for investigations, one about the assassination of Haiti's president and the other about U.S. airstrikes.

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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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