The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Virginia Thomas, the politically active wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, earned over $680,000 over five years while working at the Heritage Foundation. That’s pretty nice scratch.
A possible problem: according to Common Cause, Clarence Thomas never reported the income in his federal financial disclosures…
Is it possible that Justice Thomas “forgot” that his wife was raking in the dollars? Here’s the “oversight” Common Cause is highlighting:
Between 2003 and 2007, Virginia Thomas, a longtime conservative activist, earned $686,589 from the Heritage Foundation, according to a Common Cause review of the foundation’s IRS records. Thomas failed to note the income in his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms for those years, instead checking a box labeled “none” where “spousal noninvestment income” would be disclosed…
In his 2009 disclosure, Justice Thomas also reported spousal income as “none.” Common Cause contends that Liberty Central paid Virginia Thomas an unknown salary that year.
Is this a big deal? To the law professors!
Federal judges are bound by law to disclose the source of spousal income, according to Stephen Gillers, a professor at NYU School of Law. Thomas’ omission — which could be interpreted as a violation of that law — could lead to some form of penalty, Gillers said.
“It wasn’t a miscalculation; he simply omitted his wife’s source of income for six years, which is a rather dramatic omission,” Gillers said. “It could not have been an oversight.”
But Steven Lubet, an expert on judicial ethics at Northwestern University School of Law, said such an infraction was unlikely to result in a penalty. Although unfamiliar with the complaint about Thomas’ forms, Lubet said failure to disclose spousal income “is not a crime of any sort, but there is a potential civil penalty” for failing to follow the rules. He added: “I am not aware of a single case of a judge being penalized simply for this.”
The Supreme Court is “the only judicial body in the country that is not governed by a set of judicial ethical rules,” Gillers said.
Is it just me, or has there been an awful lot of focus on Ginni Thomas lately? I get that it doesn’t look good for an arguably impartial (if you believe that I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you) Supreme Court justice to have a spouse who is so active in politics. And Mrs. Thomas didn’t do anybody any favors when she dredged up the whole Anita Hill thing again.
But I don’t know, I try to have a mafia mentality when it comes to politics: I like to keep the spouses and children out of it. Unless the leader is incapacitated and the spouse ends up being in charge (see: Wilson, Edith or Reagan, Nancy), I don’t really care about a spouse’s political machinations.
Is there the appearance of impropriety if Virginia Thomas is raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars working for conservative causes while her husband holds inscrutable power over the final disposition of some of these issues? Sure. Does every new fact we learn about Virginia Thomas make it all the more ridiculous that the only person who can determine whether or not Justice Thomas should recuse himself in some cases is Clarence Thomas? Absolutely.
But at the end of the day, all we’re really learning is that Clarence Thomas’s wife has some strong opinions, and she was well compensated. That’s hardly a crime. It’s barely an issue.
And it’s something we’re all going to have to get more comfortable with going forward. Sure, the two most recent SCOTUS justices are single, but in the modern world it’s no longer reasonable to expect the spouses of SCOTUS justices to not exist or to exist as silent supporters of their loved ones. We live in a double-income world. People of significance are subjected to intense media scrutiny. Spouses have careers and opinions and we’re going to have to get comfortable with that.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of financial disclosures from our public officials. I agree with the following statement:
“Without disclosure, the public and litigants appearing before the court do not have adequate information to assess potential conflicts of interest, and disclosure is needed to promote the public’s interest in open, honest and accountable government,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar wrote in a letter to the Judicial Conference of the United States.
True enough. But were there really litigants appearing before the Court who didn’t know Clarence Thomas was in the tank for conservative causes? Does the fact that Ginni Thomas was well paid by the Heritage Foundation really change our understanding of anything?
I think not. Show me a financial disclosure that suggests Clarence Thomas is an impartial arbiter of the law who doesn’t have a political agenda and I’ll take notice.
Clarence Thomas failed to report wife’s income, watchdog says [Los Angeles Times]