One day in 1986, in Ronald Reagan’s Washington, a man and a woman met. It was at a conference on affirmative action, which both vehemently opposed. They had made long journeys to get there. She was from comfortably middle-class Omaha, Nebraska, where her ultraconservative parents—her mother was an ally of Phyllis Schlafly, who led the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment—steeped her in their politics. He came from poor and Black small-town Georgia, where he was instilled with no strong political passions; those came later, as an undergraduate at Holy Cross and after he grew to feel condescended to because he sensed that his Yale Law degree was assumed, in the eyes of those interviewing him for a job, to have been an affirmative action gift.
People meet in all kinds of different ways, but it’s of interest that these two asteroids from such different points of origin bumped into each other because of the movement to which each adhered. That movement has informed and solidified their bond. It has moved them further and further to the right over the years, as the movement has done the same. And it has made them, these three decades later, the most corrupt couple in Washington by far.
Clarence Thomas, now concluding his thirty-first year as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, has spent years flouting the ethics rules to which all federal judges except Supreme Court justices must adhere. Ginni Thomas has spent those same years in the thick of the right-wing infrastructure that has pushed cause after cause after cause—many of which have eventually made their way to the Supreme Court. She has maintained that the two operate in “separate lanes” professionally. It’s a line that kinda-sorta worked, since no one could ever prove that they whispered conspiratorially to each other at night that if she did this and he did that, voilà, Roe v. Wade would go down (although it makes one wonder what they did talk about, if not that sort of thing, given how immersed both are in the project to save America from liberals).
So it was always murky at best. But in 2022, it became far less so. She texted urgently with Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in late 2020 and early 2021 about strategies to overturn the election, as The Washington Post revealed in a blockbuster story back in March. In due course, the matter of Meadows’s emails and other White House documents relating to the January 6 insurrection came before the Supreme Court—an extremely conservative Supreme Court, remember, now with three justices appointed by Trump himself. And in January 2022, the only justice to vote against ordering the release of the material was the one whose wife’s scribblings were included within it.
In one of her 29 messages to Meadows, Ginni Thomas wrote, “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.” In another: “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.”
Ginni also brought to Meadows’s attention a crackpot YouTube video about supposed fraud made by a far-right commentator who had claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false-flag operation. “I hope this is true; never heard anything like this before, or even a hint of it. Possible???” she wrote. “Watermarked ballots in over 12 states have been part of a huge Trump & military white hat sting operation in 12 key battleground states.”
If we are to believe the “separate lanes” theory, then we accept not only that Ginni did not share the content of these messages with her husband, which is plausible, but also that she never said to him, over dinner or while relaxing with Fox News at night, that she had exchanged texts with Meadows. You can believe that if you want. But to do so, you have to think about the point of law on which Thomas might differ here from, say, Justice Samuel Alito, who joined the majority opinion in allowing the release of the Trump documents. The order itself gives us no clue as to Thomas’s legal logic. It merely includes one sentence that says: “Justice Thomas would grant the application”—meaning he’d rule for Trump.
Supreme Court justices are free to hide behind this Oz-like curtain of stentorian mystery, and Thomas has taken advantage of this for years. Justices, for example, are not supposed to headline or lend their names to dinners. Thomas has done so on several occasions, as Jane Mayer showed in her blistering New Yorker piece on the couple that appeared in January. Mayer reported on an episode when one of the organizations with which Ginni is affiliated gave an award at a dinner to Frank Gaffney, a hard-right foreign policy advocate who was a leading backer of Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Gaffney had hired Ginni’s firm to agitate for the ban—and had paid her, Mayer reports, around $200,000. (Hey, I might give him an award too!) His group filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Trump’s position.
That brief was filed in August 2017. That December, Ginni gave Gaffney his award—at an event held, natch, at the Trump International Hotel. The matter of the Muslim ban was before the Supreme Court at the time. Clarence Thomas attended the dinner. Seven months later, the Supreme Court issued its ruling, upholding the ban 5–4, with Thomas in the majority.
The month after Mayer’s report, The New York Times Magazine’s Danny Hakim and Jo Becker weighed in with another devastating report on the Thomases, describing “the extent to which Justice Thomas flouted judicial-ethics guidance by participating in events hosted by conservative organizations with matters before the court.” They continued: “Those organizations showered the couple with accolades and, in at least one case, used their appearances to attract event fees, donations and new members.” Thomas has at least twice headlined events of Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. He headlined an event for the right-wing Council for National Policy in 2002 (a group with which Ginni later became affiliated).
It seems quaint to say Supreme Court justices aren’t supposed to do this. And it seems positively antique to note that justices’ spouses aren’t supposed to be political. No, more: They’re not supposed to perform the kind of legal work that might end up before the court. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the D.C. Court of Appeals, her husband quit practicing tax law and returned to teaching. When John Roberts was nominated for the high court, his wife left her law practice and resigned from a position at a pro-life group.
Not the Thomases. Make no mistake: The entire right-wing bloc has damaged the court’s credibility. They sit in service not of the law, and not even by this point of “originalism,” whatever that elastic concept means anymore. They are out to remake the country in a radical way. Thomas signaled that more loudly than anyone, in his instantly infamous Dobbs concurrence overturning Roe.
But no one has damaged the Supreme Court’s reputation more than the Thomases. It’s one thing to have a hard-right ideology. That’s bad enough, as it fundamentally redefines what this nation is, in ways that harken back to a time when the United States was a functioning democracy for only a small percentage of its citizens. But to impose that vision on the democracy while flouting its rules, which literally every other Supreme Court justice has followed? That shows contempt for the democracy they tell themselves they are saving, and it announces to the rest of us that nothing is more important to Clarence Thomas than using his remaining time on the court, and this earth, to do as much as he can—with Ginni surely egging him on—to force his extremist agenda on us. There’s a word for that, and it isn’t democracy.