Ginni Thomas and the complications of being a government spouse
I come to the controversy about Virginia Thomas and her role as head of a conservative group from a different perspective than most observers of my ideological persuasion: I'm sympathetic to Thomas's efforts to have a career -- and make a contribution -- separate from her husband's role as a Supreme Court justice.
Ginni Thomas, I think, made the right decision to step down from her role at Liberty Central, a conservative grass-roots organization she launched earlier this year. The potential conflicts were too great between her political activism and her husband's -- it's awfully tempting to say judicial activism -- but let's leave it at judicial activities.
Exhibit A came when her name turned up on a memo, posted on the group's Web site, asserting that the health care reform law is unconstitutional. Liberty Central blamed a staff error, but other posts on the group's Web site underscored its evident views about the law's constitutionality. Justice Thomas may already know what he thinks about the health-care law; his wife's views may not be relevant to him. But they are relevant to the public perception about whether he comes to the case with an open, or at least unbiased, mind. The overlap was too close for my comfort.
Exhibit B came in the nature of Thomas's organization -- not its ideological orientation so much as the fact that it raises money without disclosing the identities of its donors. Ginni Thomas is entitled not only to have, but to express, her political point of view, separate and apart from legal issues. But to be at the helm of a group accepting secret donations -- as large as $500,000 in one case -- creates a nearly insurmountable problem. The public is going to have understandable questions about the identity of this donor and whether it poses any potential conflict for the justice. I suppose Justice Thomas could provide that information privately, but that would not be adequate to satisfy public doubts. There is a reason that Supreme Court justices -- like other senior government officials -- fill out financial disclosure forms.
My sympathy stems from my general conviction that spouses ought to be able to have careers separate from each other and from the particular fact, like Thomas, I happen to be married to a government official, albeit a far less prominent one. (He's the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and we met, coincidentally, at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, when he was working for a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.) I try not to write about issues that he's involved with, but our dual roles inevitably create complications of public perception. President Obama named my husband to his current position. I've been pretty tough on the president when I thought criticism was warranted, but some people will inevitably believe I've pulled my punches. Does his job mean I can't keep writing my column? Does my job mean he can't take a job in government?
I don't think so, which is why my sympathies lie so strongly with Ginni Thomas. We've come long past the point when justices' wives -- and they were all wives -- stayed home, baked cookies and hosted teas, in Hillary Clinton's famous phrase. In the modern world, Supreme Court spouses, male and female, are going to have jobs. We should carve out maximum space to allow them to pursue those careers. But there are some situations that present an irremediable and intolerable conflict. This was one of them. Thomas was wise to recognize that, however belatedly.
| November 15, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories: Marcus | Tags: Ruth Marcus
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