Senate

GOP shoots down Thomas recusal as scrutiny grows

Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)
Greg Nash - Anna Rose Layden

Republicans are defending Justice Clarence Thomas as he faces intense ethics scrutiny over his wife’s support for overturning the 2020 election. 

Thomas has been at the center of a days-long political storm in the wake of reports that his wife, Ginni Thomas, urged then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to aggressively try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The messages, which are part of the 2,320 texts Meadows handed over to the House Jan. 6 committee, have sparked calls from Democrats for Clarence Thomas to recuse himself and questions about why he didn’t step back from cases tied to the 2020 election. 

But Republicans are backing up the conservative justice, underscoring the uphill battle facing those pushing to investigate Clarence Thomas or reform ethics rules on Capitol Hill. 

“There were a lot of people who had bought some of those arguments. But I think in terms of how that bears on the justice’s work, I’m fully confident in his ability to do his job in an impartial way. He always has,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said it was up to Thomas if he wanted to recuse himself, but lamented the focus on Ginni Thomas.

“I just think this is a bad development where now public officials’ families are now the target of all this press,” Cornyn said, adding that public officials “don’t volunteer to have our families dragged through the mud.”

The GOP defense of Thomas comes after reports from The Washington Post and CBS News about communication between Ginni Thomas and Meadows set off a political firestorm. Ginni Thomas also revealed in a recent interview that she had participated in the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Critics have been raising concerns that Ginni Thomas’s political activity poses an ethically troubling overlap with her husband’s judicial position. But the new reporting on her outreach to Meadows has raised fresh ethics questions about Justice Clarence Thomas’s handling of election-related cases. 

In January, the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s bid to keep administration records from being handed to the Jan. 6 committee. The decision was 8-1, with Clarence Thomas as the lone dissenter. It’s unclear if Ginni Thomas’s messages would have been in the White House records being disputed in court. 

Clarence Thomas also dissented in a February 2021 decision by the Supreme Court to turn away a challenge to Pennsylvania’s election results. He wrote that the decision was “baffling” and “befuddling.”  

Several Democratic senators have pushed for Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from Jan. 6-related cases, as well as 2024 election cases if former President Trump runs again. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said on Monday that Ginni Thomas’s outreach on trying to overturn the 2020 election creates an “obvious conflict” for Justice Thomas on Jan. 6-related cases. 

“For the good of the court, I think he should recuse himself from those cases,” Durbin added. 

But Republicans, so far, are sticking by the justice. 

“Justice Thomas is a great American and an outstanding Justice. I have total confidence in his brilliance and impartiality in every aspect of the work of the Court,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said during a press conference at a House GOP retreat that he didn’t think Clarence Thomas should recuse himself from future Jan. 6-related cases. 

“No, I think Justice Thomas could make his decisions like he’s made them every other time. It’s his decision based upon law,” McCarthy said. 

Even Republican senators who are critics of Ginni Thomas’s texts sidestepped pushing the justice to recuse himself from certain cases.

“I think her texts were bizarre and strange and unfounded,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), while saying he didn’t have a comment on the justice. 

Despite the Democratic pushback, Congress has few paths for holding Supreme Court justices accountable when it doesn’t like their decisions. 

The Ginni Thomas news has revived calls for the Supreme Court to have a code of ethics. Eighteen senators have backed a bill that would require the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a code of conduct that would apply to the justices of the Supreme Court. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, also floated on Monday that the committee should “consider some kind of action, including an investigation.” 

Durbin didn’t rule out either path — trying to pass legislation or an investigation — but said that his focus for now was getting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed to the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a vote on her nomination next Monday, April 4, paving the way for a final vote in the Senate by April 8. 

But to get a bill on a code of ethics through the Senate or to force cooperation with a committee investigation, Democrats would need help from Republicans, something GOP senators don’t appear willing to give currently as they look to move past the Clarence Thomas scrutiny. 

“There’s plenty of time and plenty of reason for us to debate this in the future,” Durbin said. “But for the time being, I want to make sure this vacancy is filled with Judge Jackson.”

Tags Clarence Thomas Dick Durbin Donald Trump John Cornyn John Thune Ketanji Brown Jackson Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney

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