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Justice Thomas' wife says healthcare law is unconstitutional

Virginia Thomas is working to repeal the law through Liberty Central, a conservative group she founded. Her husband, Justice Clarence Thomas, could provide a key vote to strike down the law.

October 21, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey and David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is a longtime conservative activist in Washington who has raised her profile as a frequent speaker at "tea party" rallies and conservative conferences.
Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is… (libertycentral.org )

Reporting from Washington — Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is working to repeal what she believes is President Obama's "unconstitutional law" regulating health insurance, an issue likely to be decided by the high court.

"With the U.S. Constitution on our side and the hearts and minds of the American people with us, freedom will prevail," says a position paper posted on the website of Liberty Central, the group formed by Virginia Thomas this year to advance conservative principles and candidates.

Justice Thomas, a conservative, could provide a key vote to strike down the law.

Virginia Thomas, who goes by the name Ginni, made headlines Tuesday when she acknowledged she had recently called Anita Hill seeking an apology from the woman who nearly 20 years ago accused her husband of making sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace.

Hill, who received a message from Virginia Thomas on her work voice mail, said no apology would be forthcoming.

Virginia Thomas said she called Hill, "extending an olive branch to her after all these years."

A longtime conservative activist in Washington, Virginia Thomas has recently raised her profile as a frequent speaker at "tea party" rallies and conservative conferences as she promotes her new online venture.

Her engagement in partisan politics through Liberty Central is unprecedented for a spouse of a Supreme Court justice, legal scholars say. Her group is funded by donors whose identities are not publicly disclosed, fueling concerns that corporate donors could secretly fund Liberty Central in order to gain favor with her husband.

Virginia Thomas did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. In the past, she has described her work as separate from her husband's and passionately defended her right to express her opinions, a point legal ethics expert do not dispute.

"As a matter of formal legal ethics, a spouse's opinion on a constitutional issue, even if widely disseminated, does not require a judge's disqualification," said Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet. "Her wisdom or judgment is not something I can comment on."

However, Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, said Virginia Thomas' advocacy did threaten to tarnish the court's appearance of nonpartisanship.

"I would have hoped for greater self-restraint out of respect for the court. She is hurting the institution," he said. "But that's just my concern. The rules don't stop her. Mrs. Thomas has a 1st Amendment right to take a prominent public position on any legal or political issue she chooses. The conflict and recusal rules govern Justice Thomas, not his wife."

Gillers said he was also concerned by a report that Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia were featured speakers at private meetings held by billionaires Charles and David Koch, wealthy tea party supporters. An invitation to a recent private meeting noted that Scalia and Thomas had appeared before the group in the past.

"At the very least the Kochs should not use their names to increase attendance," Gillers said.

In speeches and interviews, Virginia Thomas has repeatedly called for the repeal of "Obamacare," which her website argues imposes burdensome regulations on doctors.

"Never before has the federal government dictated how doctors treat privately insured patients, except on narrow issues such as drug safety. The Constitution does not permit it," said a post signed by Liberty Central's managing editor, Brian Faughnan.

Liberty Central's website links to another site that tracks the many court challenges to the law. It expresses support for Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, who has brought one of the strongest legal challenges. It's widely expected that the high court will ultimately decide the law's constitutionality.

The group has also sought to have sway in the midterm election by distributing candidate surveys, endorsing "constitutionalist" candidates and grading incumbents.

The scorecard also gives low marks to lawmakers who voted to overturn the ban on gays serving openly in the military. That issue could reach the Supreme Court within the week.

Liberty Central was started in 2009 with two donations in the amount of $500,000 and $50,000, according to a tax form filed with the IRS. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, Liberty Central is not required to disclose its contributors, and the group has said it does not plan to disclose its "legally confidential donor list."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

david.savage@latimes.com

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