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Ginni Thomas and the complications of being a government spouse

By Ruth Marcus

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.

By Ruth Marcus  | November 15, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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And this decision had *everything* to do with the appropriateness of the job, and*nothing* to do with the inappropriateness of weekend phone calls?

If you believe that, I have a tip about WMD in Iraq that you can write up in a column!

Posted by: kejia32 | November 15, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

"I'm sympathetic to Thomas's efforts to have a career separate from her husband's role as a Supreme Court justice." Except that if Ginni Thomas were not the spouse of a Supreme, she likely wouldn't have this particular career.
But, say Ms Virginia did it all on her own, w/o any influence from hubby's job: From her position as the head of Liberty Central, she attacked a woman who testified against her husband in a very public hearing. It translated as a threat from someone who had let power go to her head. This wasn't, in the end, about Ginny and Clarence, it was about Ginny and the shoe in her mouth.

Posted by: faultyeyeball | November 15, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Oh, please.
This was fine when it was John Dingell's or Tom Daschel's wife? But they only did it for money, right? Teresa Kerry sitting on boards and making huge contributions to left-wing causes.
Did Bill Clinton stop making speeches for money or business deal when his wife became SecState?
Tom Brokaw does major environmental specials, never discolisng his wife's job?
Is this only suspect when it's conservatives?
Has the Center for American Progress suddenly started disclosing its donors?

Posted by: parkbench | November 15, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

a marriage made in heaven?

Posted by: smozzley | November 15, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Jebuss! WaPo's Ruth Marcus AND Eva Rodriguiz are both shilling for this ethically -challenged couple.

I come at this from this from a different perspective than you both. I come at it from the perspective of a citizen who suspects that Ginni and Clarence Thomas participated in a corrupt enterprise in violation of federal law. As purported representatives of the public's right to know, shouldn't both Marcus and Rodriguez be more interested in whether the Thomases accepted a bribe (in the form of a payoff by the Loch Brothers), rather than sympathizing with "poor" Ginni and her husband?

Posted by: smeesq | November 15, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

parkbench misses a crucial point. All the examples cited (except for Brokaw) are or were politicians who had a specific known political view. They were not nor were expected to be neutral. The Supreme Court is different. Justices are expected to put aside personal biases and politics when deciding cases. They are not perfect at this, but they are expected to make the attempt, or recuse themselves if they do not believe they can be fair. Ginni Thomas' role cast grave doubts on her husband's ability to be objective and to be perceived as objective.

Posted by: wtyler | November 15, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

Here's the bottom line!! The Supreme Court ruled that political donations could be without transparency and the flood gates opened up this mid term-election -- they had a field day and so did Ginny Thomas and the tea baggers. Congratulations Justice Thomas on a job well done!!

Posted by: phyllisr5 | November 16, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Ginni - be a real hero and convince your hubby and the other non-Obama members of the Supreme Court that he has trashed - to accept an eligibility lawsuit. You owe it to your country to determine just who is behind Obama and where he came from. He talked down to the Supreme Court and then saddled it with 2 airheads- Sotomayer and Kagan. Time we return the favor and expose him for what he really is.

Posted by: JUNGLEJIM123 | November 16, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Hi Ruth,

Depending on the rank of the individual a spouses actions can have dire results. Both President Ford and Michael Dukakis had spouses with drinking problems. So they are not entirely free to act as they want. When it comes to a career it is important that a spouse is allowed to rise as far as she or he wants to. Some like Margret Thacher's husband preferred to stay at home. I worked at a large bank and knew several high ranking women. Some decided to quit their careers so they could be at home.

Thank you for writing this article. I now have a better understanding of why she made that phone call.


Posted by: josephlyons | November 16, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

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