In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, writer Kathleen Hennessey informs us that Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has founded a “tea party” group. As anyone familiar with the Los Angeles Times might expect, Hennessey points out the potential for conflicts of interest inherent in having the spouse of a Supreme Court justice involved in conservative politics, and to that end she quotes two legal experts:
“I think the American public expects the justices to be out of politics,” said University of Texas law school professor Lucas A. “Scot” Powe, a court historian.
He said the expectations for spouses are far less clear. “I really don’t know because we’ve never seen it,” Powe said.
Under judicial rules, judges must curb political activity, but a spouse is free to engage.
“We expect the justice to make decisions uninfluenced by the political or legal preferences of his or her spouse,” said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics.
All well and good. Parties before the Court have the right to an impartial hearing, and it’s only proper for the Times to report on a matter that may give rise to questions about any justice’s potential for bias. But I was curious to know if the Times’s concern for the political activities of judges’ spouses extended to those on the lower courts.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is, according to the Los Angeles Times, “one of the most liberal federal judges in the nation, a jurist who rules as he sees fit even if he knows the Supreme Court will certainly overturn him.” Reinhardt is married to Ramona Ripston, longtime head of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Given that the ACLU is often a litigant in cases that come before the Ninth Circuit, I sifted through the paper’s archives in search of any stories expressing similar worries. Perhaps the technology failed me, but I searched in vain for any articles reflecting a similarly tut-tut-ing attitude about the potential for Reinhardt’s jurisprudence being influenced by his wife. In those articles in which both Reinhardt and Ripston were mentioned, their relationship was merely noted as a biographical detail. The potential for conflict of interest went unremarked upon.
Perhaps the L.A. Times’s worries over potential conflicts of interest are indeed limited to the Supreme Court, and this is why they seem to have found the Reinhardt-Ripston relationship untroubling. Then again, perhaps there is another reason.