The Right Wing

Clarence Thomas Gets Away With Breaking the Law; Ginni Thomas Shills for Right-Wing Interests

The Thomases’ active role in moving the country rightward should be a scandal, an outrage, and a fixed feature in our media. But it's not.

When it comes to the financial and ethical improprieties of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, there is only bad news and worse news. That's true not only in terms of what they've done but because there's so little reason to believe they'll ever be held accountable for their active role in tainting our judiciary with the money and influence of their wealthy, conservative GOP patrons.

The latest outrage is that Ginni Thomas is embarking on a new career: lobbyist for right-wing causes. But that's just the most recent in a string of recent news items concerning the Thomases' fast-and-loose ways with the law. It begins with a January 22 Los Angeles Timespiece that reported Justice Thomas' failure to include his wife's source of income on his financial disclosure forms for the past two decades. These forms are essential to assessing whether a justice might face a potential conflict of interest when causes or individuals associated with his/her spouse come before the court. Thomas hastily amended his reports after Common Cause brought attention to the years between 2003-2007 when Ginni Thomas earned $680,000 working for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank funded by, among others, the foundations of the Koch brothers, the Coors family and Richard Mellon Scaife.

There are many snarky things one could say about the fact that the justice's failure, while entirely illegal, has gone unquestioned and unpunished by both the feds and most of the media. One could grouse about the special treatment angle -- that the average American wouldn't get the legal benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances; or be allowed to file on a Saturday, when the federal government office is usually closed; or have their forms processed so quickly that by Monday, when the rest of the media caught up with the Thomas story, it was to say, in essence, "all taken care of, nothing to see here, move right along." Skeptics could claim to be perplexed that a Supreme Court justice, who hears the country's most complicated legal cases, could cite "misunderstanding of the filing instructions," especially given that he did file correctly prior to 1996, before suddenly becoming confused.

Journalist Brad Friedman, whose Brad Blog offers a detailed account of the Thomas fiasco, notes that this same set of circumstances would play out completely differently if the shoe were on the other foot. As Friedman told me, "If it were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not reporting a million dollars from working for ACORN, the right wing would be all over it and so would the press -- until someone from the Department of Justice agreed to prosecute. The right wing, and eventually the media, would say that Ginsburg should have known the rule of law; they'd be all over her for receiving 'special treatment,' and she'd be gone in a week."

The worse-than-bad news here is not about the amended forms, or their peculiar circumstances. Everyone in DC knew that Ginni Thomas worked for Heritage, where she drew fire as early as 2000 for gathering resumes for appointments in a possible Bush administration even as her husband sat on the case that ultimately called off the Florida recount, effectively giving the presidency to George W. Bush.

The worst news on the disclosure front is Justice Thomas' failure thus far to acknowledge his wife's employment by Liberty Central, the Tea Party-linked organization she co-founded in January 2009, which, according to the New York Times, is "dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist 'tyranny' of President Obama and Democrats in Congress."

Not because it's a secret -- again, everyone knows. But that's precisely the point.

It was Ginni Thomas who founded the Web-based think-tank. Though it didn't officially launch until May 2010, it seems nearly impossible for her to have launched the site in a single day, or a single month. Failing to report her employment in the months leading up to the official opening of Liberty Central under the terms of the court's current financial disclosure period, which concluded on December 31, 2009, is exactly the kind of screw-you gesture that indicates how little the justice or his wife care about showing the little people the appearance of judicial and ethical impropriety.

Sadly, caring about appearances is everything when it comes to the Supreme Court, which has no governing body and allows each justice to determine whether s/he decides to recuse him- or herself from a case. So it doesn't much matter, as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick told Rachel Maddow, that Ginni Thomas' Liberty Central "has expressly on its Web site put up articles saying that the health-care reform bill is unconstitutional," or that "she has expressly, explicitly aligned herself with a group that has taken a position on something that will come before the Court."

The average plebe can howl all she likes about the appearance of bias. Remember how well that went when Justice Scalia went duck hunting with Dick Cheney while the latter had a case before the Court? Scalia tossed it off with a hey-don't-you-trust-me shrug.

If you think the Thomases are done insulting we, the people, you haven't heard about Ginni Thomas' latest venture. As you may recall, she was eventually forced to leave Liberty Central at the end of 2010. This was due at least in part by public and media outcry about her dialing for donors for a Tea Party organization (her salary and its donors undisclosed, in accordance with the organization's tax status), while married to a Supreme Court justice. But now, Politico reports, less than 10 weeks later, she's launching Liberty Consulting, whose Web site assures potential clientele that Thomas will use her "experience and connections" to help them "with "governmental affairs efforts" and political donation strategies. (Among those "connections" are doubtlessly some gleaned from her time on the staff of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who now leads the Tea Party-branded group FreedomWorks, which was founded with the dollars of the Kochs.)

Not that Justice Thomas is any more sensitive than his wife to the charge that he's cultivating the wealthy and powerful. He and Justice Scalia attended the annual political planning and fundraising session led by the billionaire Koch brothers while the Citizens United case -- whose outcome opened the spigots of corporate dollars from the likes of Koch Industries into the electoral process -- was being heard. (The decision also opens the way for unions to contribute directly in the same way, but they hardly have the same amount of money available to them as do corporations.)

Now Common Cause is asking the DOJ to look into vacating that infamous decision. In its letter, Common Cause quotes the Koch brothers' own invitational materials for this year's event, which boasted of members committing an "unprecedented level of support" to "change the balance of power in Congress this November -- the very support the two Supreme Court justices helped to bolster and direct through the Citizens United decision.

The Thomases' active role in moving the country rightwards and into the hands of the Americans who can best afford their services should be a scandal, an outrage, and a fixed feature in our media -- until the DOJ at least commits to launching an investigation. Without citizens exerting an unprecedented level of pressure on the attorney general, there's little chance he'll pursue this threat to the integrity of the judicial branch.

You can take a page from the Right and start now, by signing the Common Cause petition

Nancy Goldstein's work has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, NPR, Politico, Salon, Slate, The American Prospect, and the Washington Post, where she was an Editor's Pick and the winner of the blogging round during their Next Great Pundit Contest.