—By Stephanie Mencimer
July 26, 2013- Virginia "Ginni" Thomas is no ordinary Supreme Court spouse. Unlike Maureen Scalia, mother of nine, or the late Martin Ginsburg, mild-mannered tax law professor who was good in the kitchen, Thomas came from the world of bare-knuckled partisan politics. Over the years, she has enmeshed herself ever more deeply in the world of political advocacy—all the while creating a heap of conflict of interest concerns surrounding her husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Her role in Groundswell, the coalition of conservatives waging a "30 front war" against progressives and the GOP establishment that was revealed by Mother Jones on Thursday, revives questions about the propriety of Thomas' activism on issues that have or could become the subject of Supreme Court cases.
Conflict of interest issues were first aired during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991, when critics argued that Ginni Thomas' political work might compromise her husband's objectivity. At that time, her political resume included stints as a Capitol Hill aide to a Republican congressman; a staffer at the US Chamber of Commerce, where she fought the Family and Medical Leave Act; and as a political appointee at the Labor Department during the first Bush administration. Thomas didn't leave politics after her husband was confirmed. "I did not give up my First Amendment rights when my husband became a justice of the Supreme Court," she has said in the past. She would later return to the Hill as a staffer to House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and work for the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. But in those jobs, Thomas kept a relatively low profile.
That changed around the same time that the tea party exploded in American politics, and Thomas became an outspoken member of the movement. In late 2009, Thomas founded the political advocacy group Liberty Central, which would later become a fierce player in the opposition to health care form. Detractors pointed out that Liberty Central was a potential vehicle for people with interests before the Supreme Court to make anonymous donations that might influence her husband.
The group was formed with a $500,000 anonymous donation that came as the Supreme Court was considering Citizens United, a case that ultimately resulted in loosening the restrictions on corporate giving to political campaigns. The anonymous donor was later revealed to be Harlan Crow, the Texas real estate developer. Crow was also a friend of Clarence Thomas', and he was later linked to a scandal involving the justice's failure to publicly disclose gifts from the developer and trips aboard his private jet. (It didn't help that Justice Thomas had also failed to include his wife's $150,000 annual salary from Liberty Central on his financial disclosure forms, which he later had to amend.) In January 2011, the good-government group Common Cause asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Justice Thomas should have recused himself from Citizens United based on his wife's role at Liberty Central. (Common Cause also asked the IRS to revoke Liberty Central's nonprofit status. Nothing came of either request.)