What did Justice Clarence Thomas know, and when did he know it?
The question usually gets directed at politicians, not judges, but it’s a fair one in light of the revelation on Thursday that Justice Thomas’s wife, Ginni, was working feverishly behind the scenes — and to a far greater degree than she previously admitted — in a high-level effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
As The Washington Post and CBS News first reported, Ms. Thomas, a supremely well-connected right-wing agitator, was in constant communication with the White House in the weeks following the election, strategizing over how to keep Donald Trump in office despite his incontrovertible loss. “Do not concede,” she texted to Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, on Nov. 6, the day before the major news networks called the election for Joe Biden. “It takes time for the army who is gathering for his back.” (To date, Mr. Trump has not conceded.)
In dozens of messages with Mr. Meadows over several weeks, Ms. Thomas raged over baseless allegations of voter fraud and shared unhinged conspiracy theories, including one that the “Biden crime family” was in the process of being arrested and sent to Guantánamo Bay for “ballot fraud.”
“Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!” Ms. Thomas wrote at one point. “The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History.”
Ms. Thomas had already acknowledged some involvement in the fight over the 2020 election count, recently confirming that she attended the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally in Washington, but she said she went home before Mr. Trump spoke to the crowd and before a mob of hundreds stormed the Capitol in a violent attempt to block the certification of Mr. Biden’s Electoral College victory. The texts reveal that her efforts to subvert the election were far more serious than we knew.
Now recall that in January, the Supreme Court rejected Mr. Trump’s request to block the release of White House records relating to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Mr. Meadows had submitted a brief in the case supporting Mr. Trump. The court’s ruling came as an unsigned order, with only one noted dissent: from Justice Thomas.
Perhaps Justice Thomas was not aware of his wife’s text-message campaign to Mr. Meadows at the time. But it sure makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
And that’s precisely the problem: We shouldn’t have to wonder. The Supreme Court is the most powerful judicial body in the country, and yet, as Alexander Hamilton reminded us, it has neither the sword nor the purse as a means to enforce its rulings. It depends instead on the American people’s acceptance of its legitimacy, which is why the justices must make every possible effort to appear fair, unbiased and beyond reproach.
That may seem naïve, particularly in the face of the crippling assaults on the court that Mitch McConnell and his Senate Republicans have carried out over the past six years in order to secure a right-wing supermajority that often resembles a judicial policy arm of the Republican Party — starting with their theft of a vacancy that was President Barack Obama’s to fill and continuing through the last-second confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett while millions of voters were already in the process of casting Mr. Trump out of office.
And yet the public’s demand for basic fairness and judicial neutrality is not only proper but critical to the court’s integrity, as the justices, whoever nominated them, are well aware. Partly in response to the court’s tanking public-approval ratings, several of them have grown increasingly outspoken in defense of their independence. (Though not all of them.)
The most obvious way for justices to demonstrate that independence in practice, of course, is to recuse themselves from any case in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. It does not matter whether there is, in fact, a conflict of interest; the mere appearance of bias or conflict should be enough to compel Justice Thomas or any other member of the court to step aside.
Many of them have over the years, out of respect for the court as an institution and for the public’s faith in their probity. Just this week, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson vowed that if confirmed she would recuse herself from an upcoming case challenging Harvard’s affirmative-action policies, because of her multiple personal and professional connections to the university. Legal-ethics experts are not even in agreement that her recusal would be necessary, but Judge Jackson is right to err on the side of caution.
Justice Thomas has paid lip service to this ideal. “I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” he said in a speech last year. “That’s a problem. You’re going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions.”
Bench memo to the justice: You know what jeopardizes public faith in legal institutions? Refusing to recuse yourself from numerous high-profile cases in which your wife has been personally and sometimes financially entangled, as The New Yorker reported in January. Especially when you have emphasized that you and she are melded “into one being.” Or when you have, as The Times Magazine reported last month, appeared together with her for years “at highly political events hosted by advocates hoping to sway the court.”
Ms. Thomas’s efforts, and her husband’s refusal to respond appropriately, have been haunting the court for years, but this latest conflagration shouldn’t be a close call. “The texts are the narrowest way of looking at this,” Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor and one of the nation’s foremost legal-ethics experts, told me. “She signed up for Stop the Steal. She was part of the team, and that team had an interest in how the court would rule. That’s all I need to know.” He said he has over the years resisted calling for Justice Thomas’s recusal based on his wife’s actions, “but they’ve really abused that tolerance.”
Yes, married people can lead independent professional lives, and it is not a justice’s responsibility to police the actions of his or her spouse. But the brazenness with which the Thomases have flouted the most reasonable expectations of judicial rectitude is without precedent. From the Affordable Care Act to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban to the 2020 election challenges, Ms. Thomas has repeatedly embroiled herself in big-ticket legal issues and with litigants who have wound up before her husband’s court. All the while, he has looked the other way, refusing to recuse himself from any of these cases. For someone whose job is about judging, Justice Thomas has, in this context at least, demonstrated abominably poor judgment.
If Justice Thomas were sitting on any other federal court in the country, he would likely have been required by the code of judicial ethics to recuse himself many times over. But the code does not apply to Supreme Court justices, creating a situation in which the highest court in the land is also the most unaccountable.
This is not tolerable. For years, Congress has tried in vain to extend the ethics code to the Supreme Court. For the sake of fundamental fairness and consistency, the code must apply to all federal judges; it would at the very least force the hand of those like Justice Thomas who seem unmoved by any higher sense of duty to the institution or to the American people who have agreed to abide by its rulings.
The court is in deep trouble these days, pervaded by what Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently called the “stench” of partisanship — a stench arising in no small part from the Thomases’ behavior. It is hard to imagine that the other justices, regardless of their personal politics, aren’t bothered.
No one should have to choose between their devotion to their spouse and their duty to the nation. But Justice Thomas has shown himself unwilling or unable to protect what remains of the court’s reputation from the appearance of extreme bias he and his wife have created. He would do the country a service by stepping down and making room for someone who won’t have that problem.