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Virginia Thomas' group backs off on calling healthcare law unconstitutional

Liberty Central, a group founded by the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, blames staff errors for attaching her name to a memorandum that called for the repeal of the law.

October 22, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A conservative group founded by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, removed references to the "unconstitutional" healthcare law from its website Thursday and blamed staff errors for statements indicating she and her group believed the law should be struck down.

"Liberty Central assiduously avoids taking a position on the constitutionality of this, and other issues, and will continue to do so in the future," said Sarah Field, the group's chief operating officer.

Field's comments came in response to a Tribune Washington Bureau story noting that Thomas, a longtime conservative activist who recently has raised her profile, had taken positions on legal issues likely to come before her husband. Her name appeared on a memo posted on the group's website.

Field said Thomas did not intend to sign a memorandum that called for the repeal of the "unconstitutional law." The memo was circulated by another group, the Conservative Action Project, and posted on Liberty Central's website. It has since been removed.

Thomas "did not review the memo; it was reviewed by staff who mistakenly signed off with her name on it. As a result, we have asked CAP to remove her name and they did so immediately," Field said in a statement. "Liberty Central assiduously avoids taking a position on the constitutionality of this, and other issues, and will continue to do so in the future."

In addition to the memorandum drafted by CAP, Liberty Central's website included other posts that appeared to assert a position on the issue. The group urged supporters to attend an event hosted by Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, who has filed one of several court challenges to the law. It included a position paper signed by Liberty Central's managing editor, Brian Faughnan, that said the law contained provisions that the "Constitution does not permit."

The site also encouraged visitors to sign a petition on the healthcare law circulated by Revere America, a group founded by former New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

"This law includes an unprecedented overreach of the federal government into the lives of individuals and tramples on the Constitution," the petition said.

On Thursday, Liberty Central posted an update to the site describing the position paper signed by Faughnan as "misattributed," and saying that it was actually written by Betsy McCaughey, an opponent of the healthcare law who is not on Liberty Central's staff.

Later in the day, the post was removed.

"Liberty Central is America's public square — we provide information to people from a variety of third parties on a wide range of subjects. We have reviewed the materials on the Liberty Central website and there is nothing there that takes a position regarding the constitutional challenges to the new healthcare law. But to eliminate any confusion or misinterpretation in this instance, we are removing this piece from the website," Field said.

Thomas' activism has raised questions about how a spouse's partisan activity can shade perceptions of a justice's impartiality. Thomas has defended her right to express her political opinions. She typically does not identify herself as the wife of a Supreme Court justice while promoting Liberty Central.

The issue does come up, however.

In an August interview on Fox News Channel, Thomas said she agreed with host Neil Cavuto that issues such as California's ban on gay marriage and Arizona's tough illegal immigration law should be decided by people, not the courts.

"We are all about policy and what the people can say and do in the public square. Once it hits a legal test, it's a different whole thing," Thomas said. "So I see a very bright line between law and policy, and I know other people in my household do too."

Asked more directly whether her husband opposes the court challenges, Thomas was vague.

"I just said he sees law and policy different," she said.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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