The media is storming today with news on Justice Clarence Thomas, who may or may not have violated an unwritten ethics code for Supreme Court justices by failing to disclose monetary earnings by his wife. Virginia "Ginni" Thomas earned $690,000 from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, from 2003-2007. She also founded Liberty Central, Inc., a conservative group participating in the charge of the tea-party movement. So the question for Thomas is whether his wife's political affiliations and combative government rhetoric preclude him from casting his vote in a case that directly deals with the policies of the government - for instance, the health care law.
If this question sounds familiar, it's because you heard it last December when supporters of Prop 8 in California argued that Judge Stephen Reinhardt should step down because his wife directs the Southern California chapter of the ACLU, which advocates for repealing Prop 8.
Judge Reinhardt refused, and Justice Thomas should do the same.
First of all, is anyone willing to argue that Virginia Thomas' involvement with the tea party is going to make Justice Thomas any more conservative? As an ideological purist, Thomas' most redeeming quality may be his unabashed consistency. He leans so far to the right that Scalia looks like a moderate. If his relationship with his wife is the influence that drives his politics, she's been playing puppet-master for his entire career on the court.
There's also an underlying logic that most of us can relate to - people live and associate themselves with others who share their same or similar values and beliefs. Ockham's razor dictates that between two competing theories, the simpler one is often correct. So between two arguments - that Justice Thomas married his wife because she is just as conservative, or that his wife is secretly manipulating his political affiliations to fit her own - the former is clearly more plausible.
But more importantly, this is about the relationship between partners. Just as women have evolved beyond blindly shadowing their husband's beliefs, so are husbands able to enjoy an individual intellect while their wives follow their passions and participate in the political process as they see fit.
Judge Reinhardt ruled on Prop 8, and Justice Thomas will rule on health care. We should recognize these situations for what they are, one side of a case trying to dispose of a judge because he leans in the opposite direction.