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The Supreme Court’s Ginni Thomas problem is bigger than legal ethics

Unaccountable donors are mainstreaming her favorite conspiracy theories, which demonize fellow Americans.

A new investigation by The Washington Post reports nearly $600,000 in anonymous donations to Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty, a right-wing activist organization led by Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The money was channeled through the Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank. According to the Post, "the arrangement, known as a 'fiscal sponsorship,' effectively shielded from public view details about Crowdsourcers’ activities and spending, information it would have had to disclose publicly if it operated as a separate nonprofit organization, experts said."

It’s just the latest instance of the Thomases’ conduct creating questions about conflicts of interest. But the problem runs deeper, mainstreaming Ginni Thomas’ favorite conspiracy theories that demonize fellow Americans, with no accountability as to the sources of her funding.

This is not Ginni Thomas’ first time in the spotlight for the conflicts her activism poses for her husband’s appearance of impartiality

No Supreme Court rules exist to address the problem posed by the funding of Crowdsourcers — or any other larger ethics problem posed by Ginni Thomas’ activism. (A lawyer for Ginni Thomas told the Post that "she has complied with all reporting and disclosure requirements.") Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at New York University, told the Post there is no rule for when “one half of a married couple is at the ramparts on political issues that then get translated into legal issues that her husband has to decide.” The high court has recently come under increased pressure to adopt stronger ethics mandates, especially after the leak of a draft ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court’s failed attempt to identify the leaker and allegations that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito leaked the outcome of a 2014 case. And while Supreme Court justices are expected to recuse themselves for financial conflicts of interest or for the appearance of partiality in a case, that’s an expectation, not a requirement, and no entity exists to enforce either.

This is not Ginni Thomas’ first time in the spotlight for the conflicts her activism poses for her husband’s appearance of impartiality, and therefore for the public’s confidence in the integrity of the court. In early 2020, she was part of an informal network of far-right activists who pressured Trump to purge administration officials perceived to be “disloyal” to him and replace them with their handpicked list. Just a few months later, Trump appointed Thomas to a five-year term on the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, which oversees the investment policy of the library’s $200 million trust.

In the wake of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory, she pressured state legislators to overturn the election results, while exhorting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to do the same. “Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!...You are the leader, with him, who is standing for America’s constitutional governance at the precipice. The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History,” she wrote. She shared false election conspiracies with Meadows, predicting that Trump’s campaign lawyer Sidney Powell and “improved coordination now will help the cavalry come and Fraud exposed and America saved.”

“It’s extraordinary,” CBS News’ Robert Costa, a veteran political reporter, told NPR at the time. “This is a pipeline between the spouse of a Supreme Court justice, the judicial branch and the chief of staff at the White House.” Thomas later told the Jan. 6 committee that while she regretted the texts, she still believed the election had been stolen.

A far-right movement, awash in vast amounts of anonymous donations, has fulfilled its publicly stated wish to control the judiciary.

When a justice’s spouse is as deeply enmeshed not only in the ideology but the entire political apparatus of one side, it is difficult to believe the Thomases’ claims that they keep their professional lives firewalled at home. But whether they do or not discuss work over dinner is only part of the problem. After all, it’s no secret that Justice Thomas is in ideological lockstep with the right flank of the conservative movement.

The other problem is that a justice’s spouse, at the heart of the conservative legal world, not only holds but has worked assiduously to promote extreme anti-democratic views based on conspiracy theories. Ginni Thomas nurtures the falsehood that the left is destroying America. If financial conflicts of interest create the “appearance of impropriety,” what is the “appearance” when a justice’s wife texts a top government official, as Thomas did with Meadows, that she hopes far-right conspiracies that the “Biden crime family” and others will be imminently arrested for sedition and tried by military tribunals are true?

Her political activism is rooted in her belief that more than half of America is out to destroy American exceptionalism. She is nonetheless a sought-after person in a tightly knit, interlocking conservative movement that not only wants to influence the outcome of cases before the high court, but also seeks to change politics and culture through their anonymously financed efforts, like Crowdsourcers.

In just one example of how interconnected these actors are, in late 2019 Thomas hosted a luncheon at the Trump International Hotel at which she gave out awards to conservatives she said were “the most courageous culture warriors we could identify, doing authentic work on behalf of timeless truths.” Among the awardees was Meadows, who at the time was still a member of Congress. Thomas praised his work, including that he had “built a very critical relationship with President Trump that continues to yield benefits to all of our ideas and principles.” In January 2022, the Supreme Court denied Trump’s quest to block the release of White House records to the Jan. 6 committee. Justice Thomas was the only dissenter from the decision.

“Not everybody sees it,” Thomas told the audience in a ballroom of a hotel owned by the president of the United States, “but our liberties and constitutional governance that embodies our government by the people, designed to most ably protect and promote human flourishing, is threatened by radical ideologues on the left.” Dangerously, such spectacles lend a certain legitimacy to her activities and her views. After all, if the wife of such a prominent official believes these conspiracy theories, can they be that fringe? And given her standing in the conservative movement, is she fringe?

The reported donation to Crowdsourcers is a drop in the bucket of right-wing influence on the courts. A far-right movement, awash in vast amounts of anonymous donations, has fulfilled its publicly stated wish to control the judiciary. Its handpicked jurists are just beginning to carry out its publicly stated mission of rolling back Americans’ rights they insist are the product of liberal excesses. The deeper and more vexing obstacle is that the bucket is so immense and so zealously guarded by the GOP that, short of impeaching Thomas, would-be reformers face a daunting, multifaceted task in combating one of the most entrenched and perilous threats to our democracy — a profoundly corrupted court of last resort.