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Ginni Thomas accepted questionable payments from a conservative activist years ago

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new report is putting the spotlight back on Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. There are some questions about payments she received about a decade ago. At the time, Thomas had been staking out a role as an emerging player in the Tea Party movement. Here she is on ABC in 2010 celebrating the party's growth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINNI THOMAS: I think it's an American thing. I think people are rebelling, and there's a big tidal wave coming.

SUMMERS: Now a new report from The Washington Post has plunged the Supreme Court further into controversy. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is here with more. Hi there.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Claudia, let's start with the findings in this Washington Post story. How does this reporting connect and play into the controversies that the court was already facing?

GRISALES: Right. The Post reported that in 2012, a conservative judicial activist directed tens of thousands of dollars to Ginni Thomas for consulting work. This activist, Leonard Leo, has had business before the court. He's on the board for the Federalist Society and had major - a major role shaping the Supreme Court and overturning - the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I talked to University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck about all this. He has a book coming out on the court later this month. Vladeck told me that this latest reporting adds to a mounting push to stop justices from policing themselves.

STEVE VLADECK: The stronger these connections, the more money we're talking about, the closer Ginni Thomas was to, you know, various of these players before the court, the more that calls into question whether Justice Thomas should have been participating in at least some of these cases.

GRISALES: So he argues what's missing here is some of the independent - some sort of independent accountability mechanism that will sort these stories from what's actual conflicts of interest to just tabloid material.

SUMMERS: OK. So far, any response to these claims from either Justice Thomas and his wife Ginni or Leonard Leo, the judicial activist you mentioned?

GRISALES: Leo said in a statement that, quote, "the work she did here did not involve anything connected with either the court's business or with other legal issues." He said that in response to Ginni's work. And I also reached out to an attorney for the Thomases. This attorney did not immediately respond. But at least when we look at Ginni Thomas and her history here, she has repeatedly defended her work in politics.

SUMMERS: That's right. And we should just point out that this is not the first time that there have been questions raised about her political work and related conflicts facing the court.

GRISALES: Yes. So previously, she has made it her mission in life to lift conservatism in a new way from when she was a student and studied law at Creighton University in her hometown of Omaha, Neb. She even weighed a run for Congress. It was around the time of her studies in the 1980s that she married Justice Thomas when he was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

SUMMERS: Yeah. So, I mean, she has this mission, clear passion for conservatism, but along the way, she's also run into controversy.

GRISALES: Right. Thomas was actively involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election according to text messages obtained by the January 6 committee, who had her testify for several hours behind closed doors last year. In the end, she was not a key figure in that probe. But there was controversy because Justice Thomas last year was the lone dissenter in a case before the court that allowed the panel to access Trump White House records.

SUMMERS: And now the timing of this new report casts an even sharper glare on the ethics crisis facing the Supreme Court today. What are the next steps?

GRISALES: I talked to several members of Congress about this this week, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, who said their hands are tied here.

DICK DURBIN: The key to this is Chief Justice Roberts. He alone has the authority and the power to change the ethical standards of the court.

GRISALES: Democrats just don't have enough buy-in from Republicans to push legislation forward to install new ethics guidelines. But the theme I heard today was real frustration that no one beyond the court of public opinion can weigh in on these questions of justices' alleged conflicts of interest.

SUMMERS: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.