Calls have erupted for ethical conflict-of-interest rules on America’s top court after it was revealed that Ginni Thomas, wife of the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, pressed Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The Washington Post reported that it had obtained a stash of 29 text messages between Ginni Thomas and Mark Meadows, then Trump’s top White House aide, which were exchanged in the tumultuous days after the November 2020 election. In the texts, Thomas blatantly urged Meadows to do anything he could to subvert the democratic result so as to frustrate Joe Biden’s victory and keep Trump in power.
Ethics groups, members of Congress, law professors, media pundits and a slew of other interested parties have responded to the revelations with astonishment and concern. The Thomas-Meadows texts were contained in a trove of 2,320 digital communications that Meadows has handed to the House select committee investigating the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters on 6 January.
Those communications were only obtained by the committee after the supreme court ordered them to be transferred to Congress, rejecting claims by Trump that they were covered by executive privilege. The court forced disclosure of the material, including the Ginni Thomas texts, by a vote of 8 to 1 – with Clarence Thomas providing the only dissent.
Norman Ornstein, a senior emeritus fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the development “a scandal of immense proportions”. Branding Ginni Thomas a “radical insurrectionist”, he said it was time for the January 6 committee to subpoena her texts and emails to see what other incriminating evidence was out there.
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard law school, called on the justice department to investigate the apparent conspiracy between Thomas, Meadows and Trump. “Hard to see Justice Thomas not recusing when that reaches” the supreme court, he said.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which campaigns for reform of the supreme court, told the Guardian that the rule of law depended not just on impartiality, but on the appearance of impartiality.
“There is a lack of moral authority on the supreme court right now, there is a lack of trust, and the court needs to acknowledge it and take steps to ameliorate it,” Roth said.
The commotion has come at a torrid time for the supreme court. On Friday Clarence Thomas himself was discharged from hospital having been treated for days with an infection.
Millions of Americans also viewed the televised spectacle of the first Black woman to be nominated for the highest court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, being subjected to bizarre and hostile questioning by Republicans in her confirmation hearings. Senators including Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley pressed her on her sentencing record of sex offenders in child-abuse imagery cases, and on anti-racist teaching in schools in ways that at times came closer to dog-whistle politics than a solemn constitutional process.
That Ginni Thomas was using her considerable network of contacts to try to subvert democracy came as little surprise to close observers of US politics. For decades she has acted as a prominent champion of ultra-rightwing causes, heading her own lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, since 2010.
In recent months, concern about apparent conflicts of interest relating to Clarence Thomas, who is the longest-serving of the nine justices on the supreme court, and his wife has been intensifying. Investigative articles by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker and by the New York Times have raised red flags about the interplay of such a leading rightwing lobbyist and her powerful judicial husband.
The direct connection between Ginni’s texts and Clarence’s dissent in the supreme court’s ruling over disclosure of those same texts to Congress takes the issue to a new level. It raises the question of whether Clarence Thomas had any awareness of what was in the material that the January 6 committee demanded to see.
As Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor, put it: “What does Clarence Thomas know? And when did he know it?”
The Thomases have always denied that they discuss each other’s work. In one of her texts, however, written three weeks after the 2020 election, she responded to Meadows – who described the attempt to overturn Biden’s win as “a fight of good versus evil” – by saying:
“Thank you!! Needed that! This plus a conversation with my best friend just now … I will try to keep holding on.”
“My best friend”, although veiled, was beyond doubt a reference to her husband, according to Mayer of the New Yorker, who tweeted: “‘best friend’ is how the Thomases refer to one another”.
Mayer is one of many commentators who are now wondering whether it is time for an ethics code to be imposed on the supreme court – which is the only federal judicial panel in the country not to be governed by any such safeguards against corruption or conflict of interest.
All other federal judges, including appeals court judges, are subject to a rule that says that they must recuse themselves in any matter in which “he or his spouse” is a party to, or has an interest in, the proceedings.
Supreme court justices are required to recuse if their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned”. But as the constitutional law expert Steve Vladeck noted, there is no effective enforcement mechanism, underlining the need for a more solid set of ethics rules.
The exposure of Ginni Thomas’s texts was revealed by Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, and his Washington Post colleague Robert Costa, adding a patina of journalistic royalty to the furore, which has left even observers well versed in Thomas’s extreme politics astounded by how far she was willing to go in espousing a political coup on behalf of Trump.
In her Meadows texts she regurgitated a conspiracy theory embraced by QAnon supporters that Trump had watermarked ballots sent by mail supposedly in order to detect voter fraud.
She also sent Meadows a video – backing Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen from him – created by a far-right “truther”. The video maker had previously claimed that the 2012 gun massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, in which 20 children were murdered, was an invention cooked up by gun-control advocates.
Before the text messages emerged, Thomas’s links to Trump’s big lie were already known. She attended the January 6 “Save America” rally in Washington hours before the Capitol insurrection, posting on Twitter: “LOVE MAGA people!!!!” GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING!”
“This is a really sad state of affairs,” Roth told the Guardian. “That a longtime political operative like Ginni Thomas should go down such a rabbit hole saddens me deeply.”