(WASHINGTON) -- Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court's most senior justice, long celebrated by conservatives and reviled by liberals, is facing renewed scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest as he helms the court's newly empowered conservative majority and as public opinion of the court slumps to a historic low.
Independent ethics watchdogs have raised new questions about the activism of Clarence Thomas' wife of 34 years, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, a longtime political consultant who lobbies for some of the same conservative causes -- around abortion, gun rights and religious freedom -- that are before the high court.
A New Yorker magazine report last month documented a web of associations between Ginni Thomas and "conservative pressure groups that have either been involved in cases before the Court or have had members engaged in such cases."
Thomas sits on the advisory board of a group opposing affirmative action that filed a Supreme Court amicus brief in cases the justices recently agreed to take up. She has also been highly critical in public of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, whose business has also come before the court.
Recently released emails obtained by the nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight, first reported by Politico, also suggest close ties between the Thomases and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has challenged federal COVID mandates before the high court. In a June 2021 message, not independently verified by ABC News, Ginni Thomas seeks the governor's participation in a private gathering of activists, noting that Clarence Thomas had been in contact with DeSantis "on various things of late."
Neither Clarence nor Ginni Thomas responded to ABC News' request for comment about the reports or claims of potential conflicts.
"Ginni Thomas' activities are different from any other spouse in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court," said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix The Court, a nonpartisan ethics group. "She is more activist in political causes than any other spouse. She has more relationships with organizations that have cases that come before the justices than any spouse before."
Ginni Thomas' personal website says she's "battled for conservative principles" for more than three decades, regularly advising fellow activists through her private firm, Liberty Consulting, and at conservative conferences.
"America is in a vicious battle for its founding principles," Ginni Thomas told a gathering of the Council for National Policy, a conservative advocacy group, in 2018, according to video obtained by the investigative site Documented. "May we all have guns and concealed carry to handle what's coming."
In a 2010 interview with ABC News' Good Morning America, Ginni Thomas spoke about her work to oppose the Affordable Care Act.
"I think the clear focus is to stop the Obama agenda," she said at the time. (The ACA would later face three existential challenges at the Supreme Court. It survived each.)
On Jan. 6, 2021, before violence broke out at the Capitol, Ginni Thomas -- who had a direct access to the Trump White House -- was cheering the president's supporters challenging the electoral vote count, writing on Facebook that morning "GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING."
While 733 Americans now face federal charges for their alleged conduct later that day, Ginni Thomas joined an open letter in December calling congressional investigation of the attack by a Democrat-led committee a "political persecution."
Eight days after publication of the letter, former President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court to block the committee's request for his records. Last month, the court declined over the objection of only one justice: Clarence Thomas.
"There were some eyebrows raised when Justice Thomas was that lone vote," said Kate Shaw, ABC News Supreme Court analyst and Cardozo Law professor. "But he did not explain himself, so we don't actually know why he wished to take up the case."
There are no explicit ethics guidelines that govern the activities of a justice's spouse, experts say, but there are rules about justices avoiding conflicts of interest. Federal law requires federal judges to recuse from cases whenever their "impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Roth notes, however, that there is no independent enforcement mechanism in place; it's entirely up to the individual justice.
"There's this, you know, the court of public opinion," he said. "But the only way to punish a Supreme Court justice is through impeachment and removal, and no justice has ever been impeached and removed."
While there is precedent of justices recusing due to family members' involvement or association with a given case, Clarence Thomas has never recused over his wife's political activities.
With public approval of the Supreme Court sliding to a historic low, scrutiny of the justices' potential financial or political conflicts in cases has been growing.
Ginni Thomas is not named in any case on the court's docket, nor is any group of which she's known to be part. The Thomas' supporters see a double standard in the scrutiny of their relationship.
"There's always attempts on the left to manufacture grounds to recuse conservative justices from cases. This strikes me as just another round of those attempts," said Carrie Severino, a former Clarence Thomas clerk and president of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative legal advocacy group.
In 2011, Federal Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a top liberal jurist, declined to recuse himself from a case involving California's ban on same-sex marriage despite the fact that his wife was a leader at the ACLU, which had filed an amicus brief challenging the ban.
Reinhardt defended his decision at the time, writing, "her views regarding issues of public significance are her own."
"I think we live in a world where women are [and] should be able to be strong, be active and be participants in public discourse," said Severino. "And that shouldn't be viewed as something that necessarily reflects on exactly what their husband thinks or how he's going to behave as well."
For the most part, spouses of the justices have tended to steer clear from the work of the court.
"My wife does not give me any advice about cooking, and I do not give her any advice about the law," Martin Ginsburg, the late husband of former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a longtime tax lawyer, joked in a joint appearance at Wheaton College in 1997.
But when the justices take up a major case on affirmative action later this year, they'll consider the views of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative nonprofit that opposes the use of race in college admissions. Ginni Thomas sits on its advisory board.
"It's absolutely OK that Justice Breyer's wife worked at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It's absolutely OK that Jane Roberts is a legal recruiter during Chief Justice Roberts' tenure. And it's totally fine, too, that Ginni Thomas has a political consulting firm," said Roth. "But we need to look again at those closest to the justices."
"If you appear to be against someone or something, then you shouldn't be judging that someone or something," he said.
ABC News has learned Roth's group, Fix the Court, has asked the Supreme Court clerk to strike the National Association of Scholars brief from the record because of the apparent conflict with Ginni Thomas.
The clerk has not yet acted on that request.
A new ABC/Ipsos poll finds more Americans, 43%, believe partisan political views rather than the basis of law (38%) are driving the justices' decisions.
Members of Congress and outside experts say new enforceable ethics rules for the court are needed now more than ever. Even Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged in his 2021 year-end report that "public trust is essential, not incidental" to the court's function.
But Roberts opposes outside efforts to impose a new ethics code.
"I do think it could help the justices regain a little bit of the lost public trust and credibility just to say, look, you know, we ourselves are bound by some ethical guidelines that another body has imposed on us," said Shaw. "So far, the court as an institution has been unwilling to sign on to that."
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