The long knives are out for Justice Clarence Thomas. After the release of text messages showing his wife Ginni, a conservative activist, was deep into the “Stop the Steal” narrative about the 2020 presidential election, there were calls for the justice’s recusal, impeachment, or worse.
Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, Thomas has emerged as the intellectual leader of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court. And as President Abraham Lincoln said in response to calls for Ulysses S. Grant’s removal during the Civil War, conservatives should say, “I can’t spare this man — he fights.”
With the Senate confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson all but certain and Chief Justice John Roberts becoming more of a swing vote, some liberals hope to use Thomas’ wife to whittle away at the conservatives’ 6-3 majority. Many on the furthest left believe Thomas holds one of three “stolen” Republican seats, believing Merrick Garland should occupy Justice Neil Gorsuch’s, and the allegations against Thomas and Justice Brett Kavanaugh during their hearings make them illegitimate. (Some aren’t very fond of the fact that Justice Amy Coney Barrett made it onto the court so close to the election either.)
“Thomas never should have been confirmed for the court,” reads a fundraising email from the left-wing group MoveOn.org (founded to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton). “Now, it is clearer than ever that he must resign — or Congress must investigate, reveal what he knew and when he knew it, and impeach.”
The vilification of Thomas as a black conservative on the nation’s highest court is nothing new. Nor, sadly, are the death wishes. “I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease,” USA Today columnist and radio commentator Julianne Malveaux said on PBS back in 1994.
Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal summarized the battery of derogation Thomas has faced for over 30 years. “The black left has been calling Justice Thomas a race traitor for decades,” he wrote. “It’s what they do when they can’t refute his arguments.” This is equally true of white liberals, especially on social media.
Ginni Thomas’ texts are damning, but the evidence they influence her husband’s jurisprudence in any meaningful way is thin. Thomas did not as a member of the Supreme Court vote to overturn the 2020 election results or credit the broader conspiracy theories aired by his wife. He did want his fellow justices to hear cases on the legitimate issues in play, among them whether state lawmakers or state courts should have the final say over their state’s administration of federal elections.
“We failed to settle this dispute before the election, and thus provide clear rules. Now we again fail to provide clear rules for future elections. The decision to leave election law hidden beneath a shroud of doubt is baffling. By doing nothing, we invite further confusion and erosion of voter confidence,” Thomas wrote.
None of this adds up to a case against the justice, especially if the proposed remedy is stronger than recusal from some Jan. 6 cases in which his wife has some direct involvement.
Deterring a repeat of the events of Jan. 6, whether we are referring to the Capitol riot or unconstitutional assertions of vice-presidential authority to upset the existing electoral system, is important. But that objective is not well served by using Jan. 6 to suppress authentic conservatism, as it is clear at least some partisans intended to do.
That Ginni Thomas’ views on the 2020 election are a somewhat widely shared eccentricity among rank-and-file Republicans is a problem, but not one that can be plausibly addressed by marginalizing vast swathes of voters or denying them valid, responsible representation. The same is true with regard to any liberal justice whose spouse or family members believed Russia altered 2016 vote totals, an opinion held by most Democrats according to a reputable public opinion poll at the time.
Liberals of this ilk have wanted to sideline Thomas long before his wife’s texts about the 2020 election and don’t like the Federalist Society much better than QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, feeling quite a bit more threatened by the former.