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The Ginni Thomas Jan. 6 scandal keeps getting worse. But there's a silver lining.

Thomas' emails to Arizona lawmakers is a reminder of the Supreme Court's vulnerability to corruption and conflict of interest.
Image: Clarence Thomas, Virginia Thomas and Mitch McConnell
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, with his wife, Virginia, he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Oct. 21, 2021.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

According to a recent Washington Post report, Ginni Thomas’ involvement in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election is even worse than previously known. It turns out that Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sent two sets of emails to a combined 29 Republican state lawmakers in Arizona — 27 more than previously believed, and more than half of the GOP members of the state Legislature at the time — urging them to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in their state. In one email, she demanded that they “stand strong in the face of political and media pressure.”

In other words, Ginni Thomas was more systematic in lobbying for efforts to overturn the election that we knew. This latest bit of news is disturbing, but the silver lining is that it will likely intensify calls for overhauling the high court, and help strip more people of the illusion that the Supreme Court is an apolitical branch of government and a neutral arbiter of the law.

These revelations have exposed how vulnerable the Supreme Court is to corruption.

The emails aren’t the only piece of Thomas’ known Jan. 6-related activism. After the 2020 election, she sent then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows dozens of text messages encouraging the Trump administration to take steps to ignore the election results, maintain faith in its bogus legal claims, and keep Trump in power.

Legally, the spouse of a justice is allowed to engage in political activism. But legal experts say Clarence Thomas should not be weighing in on Jan. 6-related cases before the Supreme Court because his spouse’s Jan. 6-related activities pose a conflict of interest for him: He has an interest in making decisions that shield her (and potentially himself) from scrutiny and possible legal exposure.

And it appears that Clarence Thomas has already done just that. Even in a highly partisan court where justices often break down along party lines, he was the only justice to dissent and side with Trump when the Supreme Court ruled that Trump’s White House was required to hand documents over to the House Jan. 6 committee. And it turned out that the very collection of documents that Thomas had voted to block from public exposure contained the texts messages between his wife and Meadows.

"The subpoena of documents when his wife's own texts are among the pile of documents responsive to the subpoena — that's a slam dunk," Richard Painter, who served as ethics counsel for President George W. Bush and is an MSNBC columnist, told NPR in March. "He had to recuse. He didn't. I'd want to know why."

Clearly part of the reason is that Clarence Thomas was under no obligation to do so. According to the Guardian, the Supreme Court is the only federal judicial panel in the country that is not governed by an ethics code intended to prevent conflict of interest or corruption. Supreme Court justices are supposed to recuse themselves from situations that pose conflict of interest, but they do so out of propriety rather than obligation, and at their own discretion. It's not a very robust guard against corruption, to put it lightly.

In other words, these revelations have exposed how vulnerable the Supreme Court is to corruption— and prompted Democrats to call for the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of conduct.

But beyond ethics reforms, hopefully these developments will help persuade more of the public to view the high court with a more critical eye. The Supreme Court has become a more baldly partisan institution in recent years, and it profits from narratives — now most aggressively peddled by the right — that it is merely a board of truth-tellers with no ideology or political commitments.

As more information comes out about how the spouse of a Supreme Court justice wielded her clout to lobby for pushing the U.S. into an authoritarian state — and that her husband seemingly took efforts to shield her — the high court will lose some of its luster and reputation for independence. That in turn can help open up space for talking more seriously about the need to reform the way the whole thing operates.