Long read but worth it.
Is Ginni Thomas a Threat to the Supreme Court?
In December, Chief Justice John Roberts released his year-end report on the federal judiciary. According to a recent Gallup poll, the Supreme Court has its lowest public-approval rating in history—in part because it is viewed as being overly politicized. President Joe Biden recently established a bipartisan commission to consider reforms to the Court, and members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require Justices to adhere to the same types of ethics standards as other judges. Roberts’s report, however, defiantly warned everyone to back off. “The Judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence,” he wrote. His statement followed a series of defensive speeches from members of the Court’s conservative wing, which now holds a super-majority of 6–3. Last fall, Justice Clarence Thomas, in an address at Notre Dame, accused the media of spreading the false notion that the Justices are merely politicians in robes. Such criticism, he said, “makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” adding, “They think you become like a politician!”
The claim that the Justices’ opinions are politically neutral is becoming increasingly hard to accept, especially from Thomas, whose wife, Virginia (Ginni) Thomas, is a vocal right-wing activist. She has declared that America is in existential danger because of the “deep state” and the “fascist left,” which includes “transsexual fascists.” Thomas, a lawyer who runs a small political-lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, has become a prominent member of various hard-line groups. Her political activism has caused controversy for years. For the most part, it has been dismissed as the harmless action of an independent spouse. But now the Court appears likely to secure victories for her allies in a number of highly polarizing cases—on abortion, affirmative action, and gun rights.
Many Americans first became aware of Ginni Thomas’s activism on January 6, 2021. That morning, before the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., turned into an assault on the Capitol resulting in the deaths of at least five people, she cheered on the supporters of President Donald Trump who had gathered to overturn Biden’s election. In a Facebook post that went viral, she linked to a news item about the protest, writing, “LOVE MAGA people!!!!” Shortly afterward, she posted about Ronald Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech. Her next status update said, “GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING.” Two days after the insurrection, she added a disclaimer to her feed, noting that she’d written the posts “before violence in US Capitol.” (The posts are no longer public.)
Later that January, the Washington Post revealed that she had also been agitating about Trump’s loss on a private Listserv, Thomas Clerk World, which includes former law clerks of Justice Thomas’s. The online discussion had been contentious. John Eastman, a former Thomas clerk and a key instigator of the lie that Trump actually won in 2020, was on the same side as Ginni Thomas, and he drew rebukes. According to the Post, Thomas eventually apologized to the group for causing internal rancor. Artemus Ward, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University and a co-author of “Sorcerers’ Apprentices,” a history of Supreme Court clerks, believes that the incident confirmed her outsized role. “Virginia Thomas has direct access to Thomas’s clerks,” Ward said. Clarence Thomas is now the Court’s senior member, having served for thirty years, and Ward estimates that there are “something like a hundred and twenty people on that Listserv.” In Ward’s view, they comprise “an élite right-wing commando movement.” Justice Thomas, he says, doesn’t post on the Listserv, but his wife “is advocating for things directly.” Ward added, “It’s unprecedented. I have never seen a Justice’s wife as involved.”
Clarence and Ginni Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article. In recent years, Justice Thomas, long one of the Court’s most reticent members, has been speaking up more in oral arguments. His wife, meanwhile, has become less publicly visible, but she has remained busy, aligning herself with many activists who have brought issues in front of the Court. She has been one of the directors of C.N.P. Action, a dark-money wing of the conservative pressure group the Council for National Policy. C.N.P. Action, behind closed doors, connects wealthy donors with some of the most radical right-wing figures in America. Ginni Thomas has also been on the advisory board of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student group, whose founder, Charlie Kirk, boasted of sending busloads of protesters to Washington on January 6th.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at N.Y.U. and a prominent judicial ethicist, told me, “I think Ginni Thomas is behaving horribly, and she’s hurt the Supreme Court and the administration of justice. It’s reprehensible. If you could take a secret poll of the other eight Justices, I have no doubt that they are appalled by Virginia Thomas’s behavior. But what can they do?” Gillers thinks that the Supreme Court should be bound by a code of conduct, just as all lower-court judges in the federal system are. That code requires a judge to recuse himself from hearing any case in which personal entanglements could lead a fair-minded member of the public to question his impartiality. Gillers stressed that “it’s an appearance test,” adding, “It doesn’t require an actual conflict. The reason we use an appearance test is because we say the appearance of justice is as important as the fact of justice itself.”
The Constitution offers only one remedy for misconduct on the Supreme Court: impeachment. This was attempted once, in 1804, but it resulted in an acquittal, underscoring the independence of the judicial branch. Since then, only one Justice, Abe Fortas, has been forced to step down; he resigned in 1969, after members of Congress threatened to impeach him over alleged financial conflicts of interest. Another Justice, William O. Douglas, an environmental activist, pushed the limits of propriety by serving on the board of the Sierra Club. In 1962, he resigned from the board, acknowledging that there was a chance the group would engage in litigation that could reach the Court. The historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book about the environmental movement, told me, “I think Bobby and Jack Kennedy told Douglas to cool his jets.”
In recent years, Democrats have been trying to impose stronger ethics standards on the Justices—a response, in part, to what Justice Sonia Sotomayor has described as the “stench” of partisanship on the Court. In 2016, Republicans in Congress, in an unprecedented act, refused to let President Barack Obama fill a vacancy on the Court. Trump subsequently pushed through the appointment of three hard-line conservative Justices. Last summer, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill that would require the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a binding code of conduct for members of the Supreme Court. They also proposed legislation that would require more disclosures about the financial backers behind amicus briefs—arguments submitted by “friends of the court” who are supporting one side in a case.
So far, these proposals haven’t gone anywhere, but Gillers notes that there are extant laws circumscribing the ethical behavior of all federal judges, including the Justices. Arguably, Clarence Thomas has edged unusually close to testing them. All judges, even those on the Court, are required to recuse themselves from any case in which their spouse is “a party to the proceeding” or is “an officer, director, or trustee” of an organization that is a party to a case. Ginni Thomas has not been a named party in any case on the Court’s docket; nor is she litigating in any such case. But she has held leadership positions at conservative pressure groups that have either been involved in cases before the Court or have had members engaged in such cases. In 2019, she announced a political project called Crowdsourcers, and said that one of her four partners would be the founder of Project Veritas, James O’Keefe. Project Veritas tries to embarrass progressives by making secret videos of them, and last year petitioned the Court to enjoin Massachusetts from enforcing a state law that bans the surreptitious taping of public officials. Another partner in Crowdsourcers, Ginni Thomas said in her announcement, was Cleta Mitchell, the chairman of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative election-law nonprofit. It, too, has had business before the Court, filing amicus briefs in cases centering on the democratic process. Thomas also currently serves on the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars, a group promoting conservative values in academia, which has filed an amicus brief before the Court in a potentially groundbreaking affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard. And, though nobody knew it at the time, Ginni Thomas was an undisclosed paid consultant at the conservative pressure group the Center for Security Policy, when its founder, Frank Gaffney, submitted an amicus brief to the Court supporting Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham specializing in legal ethics, notes, “In the twenty-first century, there’s a feeling that spouses are not joined at the hip.” He concedes, though, that “the appearance” created by Ginni Thomas’s political pursuits “is awful—they look like a mom-and-pop political-hack group, where she does the political stuff and he does the judging.” It’s hard to imagine, he told me, that the couple doesn’t discuss Court cases: “She’s got the ear of a Justice, and surely they talk about their work.” But, from the technical standpoint of judicial ethics, “she’s slightly removed from all these cases—she’s not actually the legal director.” Green feels that the conflict of interest is “close, but not close enough” to require that Thomas recuse himself.
David Luban, a professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown, who specializes in legal ethics, is more concerned. He told me, “If Ginni Thomas is intimately involved—financially or ideologically tied to the litigant—that strikes me as slicing the baloney a little thin.”
When Clarence Thomas met Ginni Lamp, in 1986, he was an ambitious Black conservative in charge of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—and she was even more conservative and better connected than he was. Her father ran a firm that developed housing in and around Omaha, and her parents were Party activists who had formed the backbone of Barry Goldwater’s campaign in Nebraska. The writer Kurt Andersen, who grew up across the street from the family, recalls, “Her parents were the roots of the modern, crazy Republican Party. My parents were Goldwater Republicans, but even they thought the Lamp family was nuts.” Ginni graduated from Creighton University, in Omaha, and then attended law school there. Her parents helped get her a job with a local Republican candidate for Congress, and when he won she followed him to Washington. But, after reportedly flunking the bar exam, she fell in with a cultish self-help group, Lifespring, whose members were encouraged to strip naked and mock one another’s body fat. She eventually broke away, and began working for the Chamber of Commerce, opposing “comparable worth” pay for women. She and Thomas began dating, and in 1987 they married. As a woman clashing with the women’s movement, she had found much in common with Thomas, who opposed causes supported by many Black Americans. At Thomas’s extraordinarily contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in 1991, Anita Hill credibly accused him of having sexually harassed her when she was working at the E.E.O.C. Ginni Thomas later likened the experience to being stuck inside a scalding furnace. Even before then, a friend told the Washington Post, the couple was so bonded that “the one person [Clarence] really listens to is Virginia.”
Ginni Thomas had wanted to run for Congress, but once her husband was on the Supreme Court she reportedly felt professionally stuck. She moved through various jobs, including one at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. In 2010, she launched her lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting. Her Web site quotes a client saying that she is able to “give access to any door in Washington.”
Four years ago, Ginni Thomas inaugurated the Impact Awards—an annual ceremony to honor “courageous cultural warriors” battling the “radical ideologues on the left” who use “manipulation, mobs and deceit for their ends.” She presented the awards at luncheons paid for by United in Purpose, a nonprofit that mobilizes conservative evangelical voters. Many of the recipients have served on boards or committees with Ginni Thomas, and quite a few have had business in front of the Supreme Court, either filing amicus briefs or submitting petitions asking that the Justices hear cases. At the 2019 event, Ginni Thomas praised one of that year’s recipients, Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who became an anti-abortion activist, for her “riveting indictment of Planned Parenthood’s propagation of lies.” That year, Thomas also gave a prize to Mark Meadows, then a hard-line Republican in Congress, describing him as the leader “in the House right now that we were waiting for.” Meadows, in accepting the award, said, “Ginni was talking about how we ‘team up,’ and we actually have teamed up. And I’m going to give you something you won’t hear anywhere else—we worked through the first five days of the impeachment hearings.”
Thomas’s decision to bestow prizes on Johnson and Meadows underscores the complicated overlaps between her work and her husband’s. In 2020, Johnson, a year after receiving an Impact Award, filed with the Court an amicus brief supporting restrictions on abortion in Louisiana. Last year, Johnson participated in the January 6th protests, and the insurrection has since become the object of much litigation, some of which will likely end up before the Court. Last month, she went on Fox News and said that “a couple of the liberal Justices”—she singled out Justice Sotomayor by name—had been “idiotic” during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi abortion case now under consideration by the Supreme Court. (Johnson didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Soon after Ginni Thomas gave Mark Meadows an Impact Award, he became Trump’s chief of staff. This past December, he refused to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee that is investigating the Capitol attack. Cleta Mitchell, who advised Trump on how to contest Biden’s electoral victory, received an Impact Award in 2018. She has moved to block a committee subpoena of her phone records. The House of Representatives recently voted to send the Justice Department a referral recommending that it charge Meadows with criminal contempt of Congress. The same thing may well happen to Mitchell. It seems increasingly likely that some of Ginni Thomas’s Impact Award recipients will end up as parties before the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department has so far charged more than seven hundred people in connection with the insurrection, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that the federal government will prosecute people “at any level” who may have instigated the riots—perhaps even Trump. On January 19th, the Supreme Court rejected the former President’s request that it intervene to stop the congressional committee from accessing his records. Justice Thomas was the lone Justice to dissent. (Meadows had filed an amicus brief in support of Trump.) Ginni Thomas, meanwhile, has denounced the very legitimacy of the congressional committee. On December 15th, she and sixty-two other prominent conservatives signed an open letter to Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, demanding that the House Republican Conference excommunicate Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their “egregious” willingness to serve on the committee. The statement was issued by an advocacy group called the Conservative Action Project, of which Ginni Thomas has described herself as an “active” member. The group’s statement excoriated the congressional investigation as a “partisan political persecution” of “private citizens who have done nothing wrong,” and accused the committee of serving “improperly issued subpoenas.”
A current member of the Conservative Action Project told me that Ginni Thomas is part of the group not because of her qualifications but “because she’s married to Clarence.” The member asked to have his name withheld because, he said, Ginni is “volatile” and becomes “edgy” when challenged. He added, “The best word to describe her is ‘tribal.’ You’re either part of her group or you’re the enemy.”
Ginni Thomas has her own links to the January 6th insurrection. Her Web site, which touts her consulting acumen, features a glowing testimonial from Kimberly Fletcher, the president of a group called Moms for America: “Ginni’s ability to make connections and communicate with folks on the ground as well as on Capitol Hill is most impressive.” Fletcher spoke at two protests in Washington on January 5, 2021, promoting the falsehood that the 2020 election was fraudulent. At the first, which she planned, Fletcher praised the previous speaker, Representative Mary Miller, a freshman Republican from Illinois, saying, “Amen!” Other people who heard Miller’s speech called for her resignation: she’d declared, “Hitler was right on one thing—he said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’ ” At the second protest, not far from the Trump International Hotel, Fletcher declared that, when her children and grandchildren one day asked her, “Where were you when the Republic was on the verge of collapse?,” she would answer, “I was right here, fighting to my last breath to save it!”
Vivian Brown, who returned a call to Moms for America, said that she would not discuss Fletcher’s testimonial for Ginni Thomas or clarify whether Fletcher had been Thomas’s business client. But the record suggests that the two have been political associates for more than a decade. A program from Liberty XPO & Symposium, a 2010 convention that has been described as the “largest conservative training event in history,” indicates that Fletcher and Thomas co-hosted a Remember the Ladies Banquet. A list of other speakers at the symposium includes Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, an extremist militia group. Rhodes was arrested earlier this month and charged, along with ten associates, with seditious conspiracy for allegedly plotting to halt the congressional certification of Biden’s electoral win by storming the Capitol. (Rhodes has pleaded not guilty.)
Another organizer of the January 6th uprising who has been subpoenaed by the congressional committee, Ali Alexander, also has long-standing ties to Ginni Thomas. Like Fletcher, Alexander spoke at a rally in Washington the night before the riot, leading a chant of “Victory or death!” A decade ago, Alexander was a participant in Groundswell, a secretive, invitation-only network that, among other things, coördinated with hard-right congressional aides, journalists, and pressure groups to launch attacks against Obama and against less conservative Republicans. As recently as 2019, Ginni Thomas described herself as the chairman of Groundswell, which, according to documents first published by Mother Jones, sees itself as waging “a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation.” As Karoli Kuns, of the media watchdog Crooks and Liars, has noted, several Groundswell members—including Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, the fringe foreign-policy analyst—went on to form the far-right flank of the Trump Administration. (Both Bannon and Gorka were eventually pushed out.) According to Ginni Thomas’s biography in the Council for National Policy’s membership book, she remains active in Groundswell. A former participant told me that Thomas chairs weekly meetings.
Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who, between 2009 and 2011, served as the special counsel and special assistant to the President for ethics and government reform, told me that “it is hard to understand how Justice Thomas can be impartial when hearing cases related to the upheaval on January 6th, in light of his wife’s documented affiliation with January 6th instigators and Stop the Steal organizers.” He argues that “Justice Thomas should recuse himself, given his wife’s interests in the outcome of these cases.”
Gillers, of N.Y.U., and other legal scholars say that there is little chance of such a recusal. Justice Thomas has recused himself at least once before, from a 1996 case involving a military academy that his son was attending. But, as Eisen observed, though Ginni Thomas’s activism has attracted criticism for years, Clarence Thomas has never acknowledged it as a conflict of interest.
Recusals on the Supreme Court are extremely rare, in part because substitutes are not permitted, as they are for judges on lower courts. Yet several other Justices have stepped aside from cases to avoid even the appearance of misconduct. Justice Stephen Breyer recuses himself from any case that has been heard by his brother, Charles Breyer, a federal judge in the Northern District of California. “It’s about the appearance of impropriety,” Charles Breyer told me. “Laypeople would think you would favor your brother over the merits of the case. It’s [done] to make people believe that the Supreme Court is not influenced by relationships.” Justice Breyer also recused himself from a case involving the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, because his wife had previously worked there.
Charles Breyer told me that, although Justices sometimes “might have a right not to recuse, that doesn’t change the question, which is: How does that affect the appearance of impropriety?” When I asked him whether the Justices confront one another about potential conflicts of interest, he said, “My guess is that they don’t discuss it. They leave it entirely up to the independent judgment. They wouldn’t dare suggest recusal—it’s part of the way they get along with one another.”
In 2021, Justice Brett Kavanaugh recused himself, without explanation, from a case apparently related to a family member. According to Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, a nonprofit advocating for reforms to the federal judiciary, an amicus brief had been filed by a cosmetics trade association that Kavanaugh’s father used to run.
The spouses of other Justices have taken steps to avoid creating conflicts of interest in the first place. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, her husband, Martin Ginsburg—then one of the country’s most successful tax lawyers—left his law firm and turned to teaching. After John Roberts was nominated to be a Justice, his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, retired from practicing law and resigned from a leadership role in Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion group.
In 2004, Justice Antonin Scalia famously defended his decision to continue presiding over a case that involved former Vice-President Dick Cheney after it was revealed that the two men had gone duck hunting together while the case was in the Court’s docket. Scalia argued, in essence, that Washington is a small town where important people tend to socialize. But in 2003 Scalia recused himself in a case addressing whether the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the Constitution’s separation of church and state—because, several months before oral arguments began, he’d given a speech belittling the litigant’s arguments.
Ginni Thomas has complained that she and her husband have received more criticism than have two well-known liberal jurists with politically active spouses: Marjorie O. Rendell continued to serve on the appeals court in Pennsylvania while her husband at the time, Ed Rendell, served as the state’s governor; Stephen Reinhardt, an appeals-court judge in California, declined to recuse himself from cases in which the American Civil Liberties Union was involved, even though his wife, Ramona Ripston, led a branch of the group in Southern California.
Ethics standards may be changing, however. Cornelia T. L. Pillard, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, currently handles a spousal conflict of interest more rigorously. She is married to David Cole, the national legal director for the A.C.L.U., and recuses herself from any case in which the A.C.L.U. has been involved, whether at a national or local level—and regardless of whether her husband worked on the case.
Roth, of Fix the Court, told me that there is an evident need “for a clearer and more exacting recusal standard at the Supreme Court—especially now, as it’s constantly being thrust into partisan battles, and as the public’s faith in its impartiality is waning.”
Traditionally, judges have not been particularly fastidious about potential conflicts of interest connected to amicus briefs. But that standard may be changing, too. As the number of partisan political issues facing the judicial branch has grown, so has the number of these briefs. Many of them are being filed by opaquely funded dark-money groups, whose true financial sponsors are concealed, thus enabling invisible thumbs to press on the scales of justice. Paul Collins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has studied the use of amicus briefs, told me, “There’s been an almost linear increase in the number of them since the World War Two era. Now it’s the rare case that doesn’t have one.” The reason, he said, is that, “more and more, the courts are seen as a venue for social change.” He explained that political groups, many with secret donors, are “using the courts the way they used to use Congress—basically, amicus briefs are a means of lobbying.”
The problem has become so widespread that in 2018 the rules for appellate-court judges were amended to make it possible for judges to strike any amicus brief that might force them to recuse themselves. There has been no such reckoning at the Supreme Court—not even when close political associates of Ginni Thomas’s have filed amicus briefs. One such associate is Frank Gaffney, a defense hawk best known for having made feverish claims suggesting that Obama is a Muslim and that Saddam Hussein’s regime was involved in the Oklahoma City bombings. Leaked documents show that Gaffney was a colleague of Ginni Thomas’s at Groundswell as far back as 2013. Gaffney was a proponent of Trump’s reactionary immigration policies, including, most vociferously, of the Administration’s Muslim travel ban. As these restrictions were hit by lawsuits, Gaffney’s nonprofit, the Center for Security Policy, signed the first of two big contracts with Liberty Consulting. According to documents that Gaffney’s group filed with the I.R.S., in 2017 and 2018 it paid Ginni Thomas a total of more than two hundred thousand dollars.
It’s not entirely clear where Gaffney’s nonprofit got the funds to hire Liberty Consulting. (Gaffney didn’t respond to interview requests.) But, according to David Armiak—the research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, which tracks nonprofit political spending—one of the biggest donors to Gaffney’s group in 2017 was a pro-Trump political organization, Making America Great, whose chairman, the heiress Rebekah Mercer, was among Trump’s biggest backers. While two hundred thousand dollars was being passed from Trump backers to Gaffney to Ginni Thomas, the Supreme Court agreed to hear legal challenges to Trump’s travel restrictions. In August, 2017, Gaffney and six other advocates submitted an amicus brief to the Court in support of the restrictions, arguing that “the challenge of Islam must be confronted.”
That December, as the case was still playing out, Ginni Thomas bestowed one of her Impact Awards on Gaffney, introducing him “as an encourager to me and a great friend” but giving no hint that his group was paying her firm. The Impact ceremony was held at the Trump International Hotel, and, according to another guest, Jerry Johnson, Justice Thomas was in attendance. Johnson later recalled that the Justice sat in front of him and was a “happy warrior,” pleased to be watching his wife “running the meeting.” Throughout the 2017 and 2018 sessions, as various challenges to the travel restrictions were considered by the Court, Justice Thomas consistently took a hard pro-Trump line. Finally, in June, 2018, Thomas and four other Justices narrowly upheld the final version of the restrictions.
It’s impossible to know whether Thomas was influenced by his wife’s lucrative contract with Gaffney, by Gaffney’s amicus brief, or by her celebration of Gaffney at the awards ceremony. Given the Justice’s voting history, it’s reasonable to surmise that he would have supported the travel restrictions no matter what. Nevertheless, the lawyers on the losing side of the case surely would have wanted to know about Ginni Thomas’s financial contract with Gaffney. Judges, in their annual financial disclosures, are required to report the source of their spouses’ incomes. But Justice Thomas, in his disclosures in 2017 and 2018, failed to mention the payments from Gaffney’s group. Instead, he put down a curiously low book value for his wife’s lobbying firm, claiming in both years that her company was worth only between fifteen and fifty thousand dollars.
Roth, of Fix the Court, told me that, at the very least, Justice Thomas should be asked to amend his financial statements from those years—as he did in 2011, after it became public that he hadn’t disclosed the six hundred and eighty-six thousand dollars that his wife had earned at the Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007. Beyond that, Roth said, “the Justices should, as a rule, disqualify themselves from cases in which a family member or the family member’s employer has filed an amicus brief.” In Congress, the Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, is pushing for reform. Amicus briefs, he told me, are “a form of lobbying that has two terrible aspects—the interests behind them are hidden, and they are astonishingly effective in terms of the win rate.” He added, “They open up real avenues for secret mischief.”
In January, 2019, Ginni Thomas secured for Gaffney the access that her Web site promises. As Maggie Haberman, of the Times, and Jonathan Swan, of Axios, have reported, not long after Clarence and Ginni Thomas had a private dinner at the White House with Donald and Melania Trump, the President’s staff gave in to a months-long campaign by Ginni to bring her, Gaffney, and several other associates to the White House to press the President on policy and personnel issues. The White House was not informed that Gaffney’s group had been paying Liberty Consulting for the previous two years. (Gaffney’s group did not report signing a contract with Liberty Consulting for 2019.)
The White House meeting was held in the Roosevelt Room, and by all accounts it was uncomfortable. Thomas opened by saying that she didn’t trust everyone in the room, then pressed Trump to purge his Administration of disloyal members of the “deep state,” handing him an enemies list that she and Groundswell had compiled. Some of the participants prayed, warning that gay marriage, which the Supreme Court legalized in 2015, was undermining morals in America.
One participant told me he’d heard that Trump had wanted to humor Ginni Thomas because he was hoping to talk her husband into retiring, thus opening up another Court seat. Trump, given his manifold legal problems, also saw Justice Thomas as a potentially important ally—and genuinely liked him. But the participant told me that the President considered Ginni Thomas “a wacko,” adding, “She never would have been there if not for Clarence. She had access because her last name was Thomas.”
Ginni Thomas rarely speaks to mainstream reporters, but she often gives speeches in private forums. The Web site of the watchdog Documented has posted a video of her speaking with striking candor. In October, 2018, she led a panel discussion during a confidential session of the Council for National Policy. At the time, the Senate was caught up in the fight over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault. “I’m feeling the pain—Clarence is feeling the pain—of going through false charges against a good man,” she said. “I thought it couldn’t get worse than Clarence’s, but it did.” America, she said, “is in a vicious battle for its founding principles,” adding, “The deep state is serious, and it’s resisting President Trump.” She declared twice that her adversaries were trying “to kill people,” and drew applause by saying, “May we all have guns and concealed carry to handle what’s coming!”
This warlike mentality is shared by Groundswell, the political group that Thomas has chaired. In a 2020 session of the Council for National Policy, Rachel Bovard, the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, described meeting weekly with Groundswell members to “vet” officials for disloyalty, saying, “Ginni has been very instrumental in working with the White House. . . . She really is the tip of the spear in these efforts.” Bovard lamented Groundswell’s failure to weed out the whistle-blower Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman before he gave testimony at Trump’s first impeachment trial. “We see what happens when we don’t vet these people,” Bovard said. “That’s how we got Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, O.K.?” Vindman, then the director for European affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, testified that the President had tried to pressure Ukraine’s leaders into producing dirt on Joe Biden’s family. In retaliation, a smear campaign was mounted against Vindman. He suddenly found himself fending off false claims that he had created a hostile work environment at the N.S.C., and fighting insinuations that, because he was born in Ukraine and had been invited to serve in its government, he had “dual loyalty.” (Vindman had self-reported Ukraine’s offer, which he had rejected.) The Defense Department conducted an internal investigation of the accusations and exonerated him. But, Vindman told me, the attacks “harmed my career.” He went on, “It’s un-American, frankly, that a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court, who is supposed to be apolitical, would have a wife who is part of a political vendetta to retaliate against officials who were dutifully serving the public interest. It’s chilling, and probably has already had an effect on silencing other whistle-blowers.”
Another target of Groundswell members was Trump’s former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, who was deemed insufficiently supportive of the President. According to the Times, in 2018 Barbara Ledeen, a Republican Senate aide who had reportedly developed Groundswell’s enemies list with Ginni Thomas, participated in a plot to oust McMaster by secretly taping him bad-mouthing Trump. Ledeen, who is a close friend of Ginni Thomas’s, told the Times that she’d merely acted as a messenger in the scheme. The plan was to send an undercover female operative to snare McMaster at a fancy restaurant. But McMaster quit before the sting was executed. The Times also reported that another undercover operation—which targeted government employees, including F.B.I. agents, suspected of trying to thwart Trump’s agenda—involved operatives from Project Veritas, the undercover-video group led by James O’Keefe. Ginni Thomas has given O’Keefe an Impact Award, too.
It’s unclear whether the Crowdsourcers project that Thomas said she was launching with O’Keefe’s help ever got off the ground. There’s little public trace of Crowdsourcers, other than a tax filing from 2019, showing that it was developed under the oversight of the Capital Research Center, a right-wing nonprofit that does opposition research. Project Veritas’s chief legal officer sent The New Yorker a statement saying that O’Keefe’s “schedule does not permit such extracurricular activities” as Crowdsourcers. But, in a PowerPoint presentation on the effort, in 2019, Thomas said that “James O’Keefe wanted to head up” a part of the group aimed at “protecting our heroes.” The purpose of Crowdsourcers, she said, was nothing less than saving America. “Our house is on fire!” she went on. “And we are stomping ants in the driveway. We’re not really focussed on the arsonists who are right around us!”
Last year, Project Veritas asked the Supreme Court to hear its challenge to the Massachusetts ban on surreptitiously taping public officials. The Court turned down Project Veritas’s petition, as it does with most such requests. Nevertheless, David Dinielli, a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, told me that Ginni Thomas’s proclaimed political partnership with O’Keefe, and her awarding of a prize to him, appeared to be unethical. “That’s what the code of conduct is supposed to control,” he said.
Ginni Thomas has held so many leadership or advisory positions at conservative pressure groups that it’s hard to keep track of them. And many, if not all, of these groups have been involved in cases that have come before her husband. Her Web site lists the National Association of Scholars—the group that has filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit against Harvard—among her “endorsed charities.” The group’s brief claims that the affirmative-action policies used by the Harvard admissions department are discriminatory. Though the plaintiffs have already lost in two lower courts, they are counting on the Supreme Court’s new conservative super-majority to side with them, even though doing so would reverse decades of precedent. Peter Wood, the president of the N.A.S., is another Impact Award recipient. So, too, is Robert George, a legal scholar at Princeton who, according to the N.A.S.’s Web site, serves with Ginni Thomas on its advisory board. (He says that he has “not been active” on the board.) He received a “Lifetime” Impact Award from Ginni Thomas in 2019, and recently filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court, in support of Mississippi’s ban on nearly all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.
In April, 2020, when Ginni Thomas was serving as one of eight members on the C.N.P. Action board, it was chaired by Kelly Shackelford, the president and C.E.O. of First Liberty, a faith-based litigation group that is currently involved in several major cases before the Court. Last week, to the surprise of many observers, the Court agreed to hear a case in which First Liberty is defending a football coach at a public high school in Washington State who was fired for kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games. Richard Katskee, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is defending the school board, told me that the case was “huge,” and could overturn fifty years of settled law. Shackelford’s group is also the co-initiator of another case before the Court: a challenge to a Maine law prohibiting the state from using public funds to pay parochial-school tuition for students living in areas far from public schools. In addition to these cases, First Liberty has filed lawsuits that challenge COVID-19 restrictions on religious grounds—an issue that has come before the Court—and Ginni Thomas and Shackelford have served together on the steering committee of the Save Our Country Coalition, which has called COVID-19 health mandates “unconstitutional power grabs.” In a phone interview, Shackelford told me that he couldn’t see why Ginni Thomas’s work with him posed a conflict of interest for Justice Thomas. “It’s no big deal, if you look at the law on this,” he said. It would be different, he argued, if there were a financial interest involved, or if she were arguing First Liberty’s cases before the Court herself—but, he said, “almost everyone in America is connected through six degrees of separation.”
Another of Ginni Thomas’s fellow-directors on the C.N.P. Action board in 2020 was J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who is tied to one of the most consequential gun cases currently under consideration by the Supreme Court. In 2020, he was on the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, and at the time the gun group’s official affiliate in New York was challenging the state’s restrictions on carrying firearms in public spaces. Earlier this term, the Court heard a related challenge, and a decision is expected later this year. (Blackwell didn’t respond to an interview request.) Meanwhile, the Web site friendsofnra.org currently boasts that a winner of its youth competition had the opportunity to meet with “the wife of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.”
For lawyers involved in cases before the Supreme Court, it can be deeply disturbing to know that Ginni Thomas is an additional opponent. In 2019, David Dinielli, the visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, was a deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had submitted an amicus brief in a gay-rights case before the Court. He told me he was acutely aware that Ginni Thomas and other members of the Council for National Policy loathed the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing hate groups. In 2017, C.N.P. Action directed its members to “commit to issuing one new post on Facebook and Twitter each week about the Southern Poverty Law Center to discredit them.” In Thomas’s leaked 2018 speech to the Council for National Policy, she denounced the S.P.L.C. for calling the Family Research Council—which is militantly opposed to L.G.B.T.Q. rights—a hate group.
For Dinielli, the idea that a Justice’s spouse belonged to a group that had urged its members to repeatedly attack his organization was “counter to everything you’d expect if you want to get a fair shake” before the Court. He explained, “These activities aren’t just political. They’re aimed at raising up or denigrating actors specifically in front of the Supreme Court. She’s one step away from holding up a sign in front of her husband saying ‘This person is a pedophile.’ ”
Dinielli went on, “The Justices sit literally above where the lawyers are. For these people to do the job they were tasked with, they have to maintain that level. But this degrades it, mocks it, and threatens it.” He warned, “Since the Court doesn’t have an army, it relies on how it behaves to command respect. Once the veneer cracks, it’s very hard to get it back.”
More reasons why Thomas must be removed from the court.