DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has decided to retire, giving President Biden the opportunity to fulfill his promise of naming a Black woman to the nation's highest court. Our guest today, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, has identified another development involving the Supreme Court that some legal scholars believe may undermine the integrity of the institution. Her latest article is about the conservative activism and influence of Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Mayer reports that Ginni Thomas holds extreme right-wing views. She's been supportive of Donald Trump's baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and she's said that the country faces existential danger from the deep state and the fascist left. She has an active lobbying firm and has ties to many groups that have an interest in cases that may come before the court. One example - on Monday, the court agreed to consider whether race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are lawful, raising the prospect that the court's conservative supermajority could roll back affirmative action in higher education. Ginni Thomas is on the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that has filed an amicus brief in the Harvard case. Mayer also talks to legal scholars who raise concerns about Ginni Thomas' activities. Many say there's a pressing need for clearer rules to govern the conduct of Supreme Court justices and their families.
Well, Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
JANE MAYER: Thanks so much. Great to be with you.
DAVIES: I thought before we talk about Ginni Thomas' specific activities, we might talk a bit about what rules or standards should apply to this. I mean, we live in an age where people's spouses have careers. And, you know, everybody has a right to express their political views and a right to engage in lawful business activities. Now, we know that public officials are often bound by ethics codes in states and localities, and they generally provide that, you know, you can't use your power as a public official to bestow a financial benefit on yourself or a member of your immediate family, right? You can't award a contract to your husband or wife's firm because that's a little too close. It gives you a financial interest besides the public good. But what about judges? What rules, if any, apply to judges?
MAYER: Well, there are actually very specific rules applying to judges' spouses and family members. But what's interesting is that these rules apply to all judges who are in the federal system except for those on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court holds itself as above all the rest of the judges and above the judicial code. Because it is the highest sort of judicial voice in the country, the point that has been made - it was actually made a number of years ago by Justice Rehnquist - was that nobody can enforce the law on it because it is basically the law itself, and so it is outside of the judicial code that binds the rest of the judges.
There's sort of two sets of rules. One is very specific about not being able to judge any kind of case in which your spouse is, for instance, arguing the case or has a financial interest in the case or some other interest in the case. You are supposed to step aside and recuse yourself, rather than sit in judgment of something that involves your direct family member, spouse or a kid in your family. And there's the second rule. You also are supposed to recuse yourself if there might be the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if it's not an actual conflict. If it's something, a situation, that might make a reasonable person who knows the facts think that you as a judge can't be impartial, you should step aside.
And the reason there's an appearance test is because, in this country, the thinking has been that the appearance of justice is just as important as the fact of justice, that it's incredibly important in a democracy that the public trusts the courts and thinks that the judges are not corrupt. So there's this appearance test. But all of those rules are optional for the Supreme Court judges, except for the most extreme cases where, for instance, if a Supreme Court justice - if his spouse was literally involved in a case in front of them, it would be clear that he'd have to step aside. But there's a ton of gray ground for the Supreme Court that is black and white for every other judge in this country.
DAVIES: Right. So the standard for the other judges, not the justices, is not just a financial benefit standard. It's - if the circumstances would raise a question which would undermine the court's sense of impartiality, that's a problem. Are there financial disclosures required of Supreme Court justices?
MAYER: So there are. The Supreme Court falls under the Ethics in Government Act, as do other branches of the government, and that requires that the Supreme Court justices disclose some things about their financial interests, publicly. But the actual rules are interpreted by the sort of administrative offices of the courts, and it's kind of, again, sort of an honor system. The justices take care of this themselves. And for the most part, they disclose quite a bit about all of the stocks and things that are in their portfolios.
But there's a glitch in it, and that's what I came across in writing about Ginni Thomas. She appears to have a private business, a consulting business, where - at least the way that Justice Thomas has been interpreting the rules, where she can take clients and not have to publicly disclose who they are. They can pay her an undisclosed amount of money, and all that's on the forms for the public to see is that she earns some undisclosed amount of money from her firm. So basically, anybody who wants to give money to a Supreme Court justice could pay the spouse as a client, and nobody would know in the public.
DAVIES: Nobody would know from the justice's financial disclosure forms. And that's not fudging it. The law doesn't require that - the rules don't require that?
MAYER: It appears not. I've been interviewing lots of people about it. And they - there's just a lot of murk there. It's clear from, you know, having interviewed tons of people about this that there needs to be some clarification here because it appears to be kind of a - as I said, kind of a glitch or a loophole. I mean, for the most part, the justices, as I said, self-enforce and self-disclose. But what I came across in doing this reporting was an instance where, just because I bumped into one of these client's finances, I could see that Ginni Thomas had earned something like $200,000 from a specific person who had an interest in front of the court and that none of this was disclosed in Justice Thomas' financial disclosures.
DAVIES: So I'd like you to give us a sense of Ginni Thomas' political views. You write that a lot of Americans first became aware of her views on January 6, 2021. Why?
MAYER: On that morning, which was the morning of the sort of - the big gathering for the Stop the Steal rallies in Washington that were protesting the legitimacy of Biden's election. That morning, Ginni Thomas went online and posted some comments that drew a ton of attention because she basically cheered on the protesters and sided with those who were claiming that the election was stolen. She said, you know, that God bless them and such. And, you know, it was interesting to many people because it sort of placed her in the far-Trump base, right-wing Trump base, when she did that.
Then, of course, those protests turned into a violent storming of the Capitol that we've all seen. And after that, there was sort of two days gap, and she then amended her post to say that she had made - sort of a disclaimer saying, well, it was posted before the violence.
DAVIES: I mentioned in my introduction that you wrote that Ginni Thomas has said that the country faces existential danger from the deep state and fascist left. Where does that come from?
MAYER: I've listened to a number of her speeches now. There's an organization called Documented that somehow has put online a number of her speeches, so others can check them out themselves if they want to see. And her tone is warlike. She basically talks about - in one speech about how the enemies of America, who she defines as the left, are trying to kill people like herself. And she uses that word kill twice. She talks about how important it is to be able to have guns, and she says, you know, I hope we all have them, and I hope we'll all be able to carry concealed weapons soon.
It's a very martial and aggressive kind of tone she takes - somewhat paranoid, I would say. She seems to feel persecuted a lot of the time. And so she sees enemies everywhere. I interviewed someone who is in one of these groups with her who said, basically - first of all, he said that he didn't want to speak on the record because he described Ginni Thomas as "volatile," quote, unquote, and said that the best way to describe her, he thought, was tribal. He said she's - basically sees the world as either you're part of her little group or you're an enemy. So she has a kind of a divisive worldview.
DAVIES: There's an organization called Groundswell. You want to explain what it is and what Ginni Thomas' role is?
MAYER: Yeah. This is a group that Ginni Thomas helped found a number of years ago. I think it goes back at least till 2013, and it still exists. She describes herself as the chairman of Groundswell. It's kind of an online network, a secret network of right-wing activists who are trying to coordinate with conservative members of Congress and their staff and conservative members of the media and quite a few other activists.
And they, during the Trump administration, played a really unusual role and, I think, one that raised a lot of eyebrows even inside the Trump White House, which was that they compiled a list of people that they claimed were disloyal members of the so-called deep state who were, they thought, not going along enough with Trump. And they brought this list to the White House and delivered it to Trump and said that basically these people need to be fired. And they presented what they said were better people, their friends, who should be hired.
And this was - Ginni Thomas was kind of described as the tip of the spear of this by somebody else. So you can again see this as a speech online where someone named Rachel Bovard says about Ginni Thomas, she's been the tip of the spear in this movement to purge the Trump administration of deep-state actors.
DAVIES: And do we know of specific people that they targeted or that were removed or denied jobs?
MAYER: Well, one of the people that they went after very harshly was H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser to Trump, who they felt was not hawkish enough and not pro-Trump enough. And they thought that he secretly didn't support Trump, so they tried to get rid of him. And they actually - it was a kind of crazy sort of caper. There was an effort to plan a sting that would have involved setting McMaster up. They had undercover women who were going to try to meet with him in a restaurant and get him to sort of loosen up and say inappropriate things about Trump, and they were going to surreptitiously tape him. But as it turned out, McMaster resigned before that ever took place.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer and chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article is "Is Ginni Thomas A Threat To The Supreme Court?" We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New Yorker, staff writer and chief Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her latest article examines the conservative activism and influence of Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Let's just talk a little bit about Ginni Thomas' background. She grew up in Nebraska. What do we know about her family?
MAYER: Well, she grew up in a kind of upper-middle-class family in Omaha, Neb. Her father was a engineer and a developer of sort of housing complexes. And her family was very conservative and very active in politics. And one of the people I interviewed is the journalist Kurt Andersen, who grew up exactly across the street from the Lamp family. Her name before she got married was Virginia Lamp. And he said that his parents were actually Goldwater Republicans. But even they thought the Lamps were - what he said was crazy. They were - he looks at them as kind of the beginning of the modern, crazy right wing. They believed in things like the John Birch Society, and they were afraid that there was fluoridation in the water that was somehow poisoning people's minds - that kind of thing.
DAVIES: She makes her way to Washington. How does she get there and - I don't know. Her life took some interesting detours there; didn't they?
MAYER: Yeah, it did. She went to Washington with the local congressman when he was elected. Her family knew him, and she got a job in his office. But it looks like she had sort of some rocky years. She was a law student. She flunked the bar exam, the state bar exam in Nebraska, and she sort of fell in with a self-help sort of self-actualization kind of cult called Lifespring in Washington, where the members kind of got into ritual humiliation of each other. They'd strip down out of their clothes and then mock each other's body fat. And it sounded grim and kind of scary. But anyway, she was then deprogrammed, got out of it, became anti-cult. But that was a phase of her life before she met Clarence Thomas.
DAVIES: Yeah, you know, I think most of us would not want to be judged by the - many of the things we did in our 20s. Do you think that this tells us anything important about Ginni Thomas?
MAYER: You know, I look at it, and like you, I say, you know, people - all kinds of things happen to people as they grow up, and, you know, you try to - try not to be too judgmental about people - at least I try not to be. But I think, you know, it's interesting to me. It sort of raises questions about her gullibility and her susceptibility to extreme ideas. You know, you can see that in her possibly.
DAVIES: She meets Clarence Thomas. They are ideologically in sync. They marry in 1987. And of course, when he is nominated to the Supreme Court, he has the most memorable confirmation hearings. Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. He was confirmed. You wrote a terrific book about this, by the way - "Strange Justice" is the name - with Jill Abramson. What do you know about the - you know, Ginni Thomas was with him then. What do you know about the impact of that experience on their relationship and her political development?
MAYER: You know, this is sort of where I entered this story, many years ago during those hearings, covering them and then writing that book. And I think that single event must have been completely traumatic for both Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas, and in some ways, I suspect from reading a lot about them that neither of them have ever really recovered from it. Ginni Thomas has described it as like going through a fiery furnace.
And the two of them were very much welded together by it. Even before that, Clarence Thomas had been described as listening to Ginni Thomas more than anybody else. It was the one person that he listened to, according to his friends. But after that, I think both of them had just pronounced bitterness towards the mainstream press, towards liberals who had questioned them and certainly towards anybody who believed that Anita Hill told the truth. And that is more than half the country at this point.
DAVIES: So when Justice Thomas ascended to the high court, where did Ginni Thomas' professional life go?
MAYER: So she apparently felt quite stuck and stymied by the fact that he went on the Supreme Court. She had harbored ambitions of running for Congress, but when he went on the Supreme Court, she felt she really couldn't do that, and she felt somewhat stuck and stymied. She cycled through a number of different positions in kind of conservative institutions. She worked for the Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank. And she tried to open up a kind of nonprofit group that got her into a lot of trouble because it was very much involved in advocating strong political positions on the right that conflicted with the ability of her husband to have a neutral position on cases.
So she gave that up and eventually opened up her own little political lobbying firm called Liberty Consulting. That was in about, I think, 2011. And it's also been the source of a lot of controversy.
DAVIES: Is it a one-person shop? Does she have a staff? Does she hire other lobbyists? Do you know?
MAYER: It's a one-woman shop. I think she's got maybe one assistant that I know of. You can see from its sort of incorporation papers, it's just a little place. If you look up its address online, it's just a mailbox.
DAVIES: And what do we know of its work and its clients?
MAYER: Well, we don't - you know, it's hard to find out. But she has a website, and on it she boasts that she can get access to any door in Washington. And she has a number of clients, former clients and other supporters, who tout her skills. And it's hard to tell which ones have been clients of hers or which ones are just supporters. But they include a kind of - they run the gamut of the far-right wing, including one of the organizers of the January 6 Stop the Steal protests, somebody named Kimberly Fletcher.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of states have - and cities have lobbying statutes which require that people who hire lobbyists state that, state who the lobbyist is, in some cases how much they pay them. Does she have to disclose anything about her clients in public filings?
MAYER: If she were following the law and lobbying somebody in the executive branch or Congress, she would have to register as a lobbyist. She has not registered as a lobbyist. You know, there's a certain amount of sort of gray area in there. So she has not disclosed or registered herself as a lobbyist in any formal way.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer and chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article in the magazine is titled "Is Ginni Thomas A Threat To The Supreme Court?" We'll continue our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is New Yorker staff writer and chief Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her latest article examines the conservative activism and influence of Ginni Thomas, the wife of Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginni Thomas has a lobbying firm and ties to many conservative groups that have an interest in cases before the court. Some legal scholars say that undermines confidence in the court, which is not bound by the code of conduct that applies to lower courts in the federal system.
So, Jane Mayer, one of the things you write about is that Ginni Thomas often has connections to people or organizations that would file amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases. Let's talk about this. First of all, just explain what an amicus brief is.
MAYER: So amicus briefs are so-called friend-of-the-court briefs. They're basically outsiders to the case who are joining the case by saying they support one side or the other. They're taking a position on the cases in front of the court. And there are a ton of amicus briefs at the Supreme Court these days. It's kind of an unwatched area that's exploding. And the reason, according to experts that I interviewed, is that it's become a form of lobbying. As the Supreme Court takes on all of these really important political issues in front of the country, the interests and the outside groups are filing amicus briefs in order to sort of put their thumb on the scale of justice and push on one side or another.
And a lot of these briefs are actually filed by groups where you can't see who's funding them. It's another kind of form of dark money spending. And there's a push on - in Congress to try to get more sort of disclosure and transparency of it. But meanwhile, there are kind of private interests pouring money into the court by filing these amicus briefs.
DAVIES: Can anybody file an amicus brief, and does the court have to take it into consideration?
MAYER: The court has to accept the amicus briefs. So I think, you know, if it was a, you know, somebody who didn't have any particular standing or reason to be involved, they can strike those briefs. But basically, both sides of the case also have to accept them.
DAVIES: When you say they strike them, is that a formal filing that's filed with the court? We got this amicus brief. We don't regard it as - what? - meaningful, qualified.
MAYER: Because they're - these amicus briefs have become increasingly controversial, there was a new rule passed in 2018 for appellate judges that enables them to strike any amicus brief that presents a conflict of interest to them. Rather than having this conflict in front of them and a brief that's submitted by someone that they may know too well, such as a spouse or a group that a spouse is involved in, they can say, don't file that brief. We're not going to accept that brief. But the Supreme Court is just loaded with amicus briefs. There's been a kind of a linear increase in the number of them since World War II. And what I found was just an astounding number of them have connections to Ginni Thomas.
DAVIES: You know, what's fascinating is that it sort of makes a Supreme Court case almost like a legislative hearing where, you know, Congress or a state legislature will say, yeah, anybody who thinks there's important information we should know about this proposed law, come sit down, get sworn in and tell us what you have to say. But a court case is a little different. It's sort of - it's almost, like, becoming more like a legislative process if...
MAYER: It's very much politicizing the Supreme Court. And what's interesting, according to some of the people that I interviewed who study these things, is that they have influenced these amicus briefs, because there is a study that shows that, increasingly, the justices are quoting from them in their opinions. So just like - as if a lobbyist was writing the legislation for a lawmaker, these outside lobbyists who are submitting briefs are beginning to have their words incorporated into the opinions that the Supreme Court issues.
DAVIES: Now, you cite many circumstances in which conservative groups or individuals that Ginni Thomas has some association with have filed amicus briefs before the court that her husband sits on. I thought we would look at one case, and this involves Frank Gaffney. You want to explain who he is?
MAYER: Sure. He's a well-known figure in Washington. He's a very, very outspoken defense hawk who has, over the years, been vociferous in his fear that Muslims are posing an existential threat to America.
DAVIES: And what connection does Ginni Thomas have with him?
MAYER: Well, he has a - sort of a advocacy group that's called the Center for Security Policy. And in 2017 and 2018, according to filings that he submitted to the IRS, he hired Ginni Thomas' consulting group, each year, for over $100,000, to work for him. She was earning a decent chunk of change from Frank Gaffney in 2017 and 2018 from his nonprofit.
He, meanwhile - this is where it begins to get - sort of the plot thickens and it gets concerning - is that he, meanwhile, was very much advocating publicly for Trump's so-called Muslim ban that was going to try to exclude Muslim countries from having immigrants come to the United States. He was advocating publicly for that ban, and, privately, he was part of a group that submitted an amicus brief in front of the court when that ban was being considered by the Supreme Court. So Ginni Thomas is working for someone, as it turns out, and making money from someone who has joined a case in front of her husband. But nobody could see this at the time. You have to really kind of, you know, put on your green eyeshades to find it.
DAVIES: And an interesting question is, where would Frank Gaffney and his organization get the $200,000 or more that they used to hire Ginni Thomas as a lobbyist? And you did some reporting on this. What did you discover?
MAYER: Yeah. Good question. Where does the Center for Security Policy find the cash to pay over a hundred thousand a year to Ginni Thomas' consulting firm? It's just a little nonprofit. So where's this coming from? And if you push back further and kind of, you know, turn the rocks over further, what you find is that Gaffney's center was funded by a political group which was chaired by Rebekah Mercer, the sort of well-known Trump backer. She's an heiress and part of the Mercer family that's made tons of money on Wall Street. And she's backed all kinds of Trump causes and Trump's election.
And so what you can see is the money has gone from Trump backers to the Gaffney nonprofit and from that to Ginni Thomas' consulting firm. And there you've got the wife of a Supreme Court justice basically receiving these funds that are one step removed from Trump backers while her husband is sitting in judgment of Trump's policies. It's just - as one of the legal scholars I interviewed, David Luban, said, it's slicing the baloney a little bit too thin.
DAVIES: And we should just note that the group which provided this money to Gaffney's organization, which is headed by Rebekah Mercer, is called Making America Great or Make America Great, right?
MAYER: It was called Making America Great.
DAVIES: OK. So - right. So we have a case here not simply of ideological alignment. It is no surprise that Ginni Thomas and Frank Gaffney might hold the position that they have held with respect to the Muslim travel ban. But now we have this movement of money from an active pro-Trump group to a private advocacy organization, to Ginni Thomas' one-person lobbying firm while this case is before the court. Wow. You know, it may be that Clarence Thomas would have voted the way he voted, to uphold the Muslim ban, anyway. Not hard to imagine that. But I suppose other parties in the case might like to at least have known that these arrangements were afoot, did they?
MAYER: No. I don't think anybody knew at the time other than the Thomases, maybe, you know, and Frank Gaffney. No. And, you know, of course, the other side would like to know that there's - that the justice's family was being paid by somebody who had filed an amicus brief. But there was no disclosure of this. And as you say, given Clarence Thomas' record and his point of view, he might very well have upheld that Muslim ban anyway. He certainly did vote for it over and over again. He was one of the most consistent supporters of Trump policies.
But it's the aura, again, that we get back to here, which is the image problem, the appearance of a conflict of interest that undermines the public confidence that the court is ruling in favor of justice rather than in favor of a justice's pocketbook.
DAVIES: And just this one little detail - I mean, Justice Thomas is required to file annual financial disclosure statements. Should these payments have appeared on that disclosure?
MAYER: So I spoke with experts in this subject. Like, there's somebody named Gabe Roth, who has a group called Fix the Court. It's a nonpartisan group. And it's trying to get more public disclosure of this kind of thing. And he said, absolutely. He thinks that, you know, Justice Thomas should amend the financial disclosure, put out more information on this and also that there needs to be some reform in these rules so that justices are required to recuse if their family members are involved in amicus briefs in front of the court.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break. We are speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer and chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article in the magazine is titled "Is Ginni Thomas A Threat To The Supreme Court?" We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer and chief Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her latest article is about the conservative activism and influence of Ginni Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Another interesting thing you note about Frank Gaffney, this person who heads this group, the Center for Security Policy - you report in 2019 it was reported that the White House had Ginni Thomas and Frank Gaffney and some associates to brief President Trump on some policy and personnel issues. What do we know about that meeting, how it happened, what occurred?
MAYER: So there's been some excellent reporting on this in The New York Times and in Axios by Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times. What we know is that for months, Ginni Thomas had been trying to get into the White House to have the meeting with President Trump. And she wanted to bring in some of her crowd with her, including Frank Gaffney. The White House was not informed that Frank Gaffney was actually a lobbying client of hers. But at any rate, she'd been pushing hard for this for quite some time.
So in the end of 2018, former President Trump and his wife, Melania, had a sort of private dinner with Justice Thomas and with Justice Thomas' wife. And it was after that that the president agreed that he would allow Ginni Thomas to come into the White House and meet with him with her group. So she got access. And people I interviewed suggest that, you know, that she would never have ever been in there except for who she was married to.
DAVIES: When this briefing occurred on policy and personnel issues with Ginni Thomas and Frank Gaffney, what do we know about the meeting? What happened?
MAYER: Well, by all accounts, it was a very awkward and uncomfortable meeting. Ginni Thomas brought in a group of people. And they prayed there. And they handed a list - I think she handed the list of people in the Trump administration who she said needed to be purged from the administration. And she opened the meeting, actually, by looking around the room and saying she didn't trust everybody in it. So it was a really strange meeting. And apparently - I heard from somebody who was there who said that he talked to Trump about Ginni Thomas and that basically, Trump actually genuinely liked Clarence Thomas. And he also had some interests that were sort of personal interests in keeping on good terms with Clarence Thomas. He saw Clarence Thomas as a potentially really useful ally up and on the Supreme Court.
And as we know, president - former President Trump had a lot of legal problems. And so he needed all the allies he could get. He also apparently entertained the thought for a while that he might be able to sort of court Clarence Thomas into retiring and then get yet another seat open, where he could appoint someone he wanted to the Supreme Court. So he had his reasons for wanting to kind of go along with and stay on good terms with Justice Thomas. But he confided to others in the White House that he regarded Justice Thomas' wife, Ginni, as what he called a wacko.
DAVIES: You know, there's one case about the January 6 assault on the Capitol that's already come before the court. And that is, I guess, the release of Trump's documents. Was Justice Thomas the only vote against requiring their release?
MAYER: He was the only vote that - Trump side and said that Trump didn't need to release his documents, his papers to the January 6 committee. And then, of course, it raised tons of eyebrows again because of Ginni Thomas.
I mean, the thing is that Ginni Thomas has ties to many of the organizers of the January 6 protests. She had posted in favor of the protests. She has long-standing ties that go back to 2013, when she was in a kind of political group with Ali Alexander, who was one of the organizers of that event. She was on the board - the advisory board of Turning Point Action, which is another group whose founder, Charlie Kirk, had a big role in organizing the January 6 protests. And he claimed online that he would send busloads of people to the protests. And she had given an award to somebody named Kimberly Fletcher, who runs Moms for America, which also was involved in the protests. Kimberly Fletcher was an organizer of it and spoke at two of the events at January 6.
And if you go back in time, one of the interesting things was - I found that Ginni Thomas spoke at an event all the way back in the Tea Party era - I think it was in 2010 - where the founder of the Oath Keepers also was speaking. And he now - Stewart Rhodes - has been indicted for seditious conspiracy in connection with the events of January 6. So there are a lot - a really weird number of connections between the - Justice Thomas' wife and these events of January 6 that are under investigation and the subject of much litigation. So when Justice Thomas was the sole justice to take Trump's side, a number of people kind of wondered, you know, is this related?
DAVIES: What other cases might come before the court related to the assault on the Capitol?
MAYER: Well, I mean, one of the issues that may come in front of the court is whether targets of the January 6 committee need to cooperate with it. So we've got a situation where Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff to President Trump, has refused to comply with the committee's summons that he give testimony. And that may come in front of the court. And, again, this is a problem in terms of the image of Ginni Thomas because she gave Mark Meadows one of her special awards, something she calls the Impact Award. So it seems as if she's kind of favoring him.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer and chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article in the magazine is titled "Is Ginni Thomas A Threat To The Supreme Court?" We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer and chief Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her latest article is about the conservative activism of Ginni Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
One of the other things you noted in the piece I find interesting is that, in some cases, attorneys who have cases before the Supreme Court feel like they discover that, you know, they have an opponent, which is the other party than their attorneys', but they also have another opponent in Ginni Thomas. You mention particularly David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. What was his concern?
MAYER: Yeah, it was really disturbing for him. He had a case where his organization came up in front of the court, the Supreme Court. And what he knew was that Ginni Thomas is on the executive committee. She's a director of a group called C.N.P. Action where one of the group's positions was that every week, they were told that their members needed to denounce the Southern Poverty Law Center online every single week, to come up with something to say that would denigrate this organization.
And so the lawyer for the organization had a case in front of the Supreme Court, and he said, you know, how can he possibly feel that he's getting a fair shake for his organization when he knows that the justice's wife is part of a group calling for the denunciation of his group on a weekly basis? He said it just makes a complete mockery of the idea that there's fairness on the Supreme Court, and he finds it incredibly disturbing.
DAVIES: So there's a lot going on here, Ginni Thomas' activism in many cases involving people who might have business before the court. How much concern is there among justices, legal scholars that this undermines the reputation of the court?
MAYER: I think there's a lot of very serious concern. I spoke to a number of the people who are really considered kind of the gold standard on the subject of judicial ethics. One of them, for instance, Stephen Gillers, who's a professor of law at NYU, used very strong language. And he's always very careful. But what he said was that he thought that Ginni Thomas is - her behavior is reprehensible. He said that - he thought that if you could ask the other eight justices what they think about what she's doing, that they would tell you that they were appalled. But, again, the issue, as he put it, is, what can they do about it?
DAVIES: I guess the question that obviously occurs is, how does he know what the other eight justices think?
MAYER: Well, you can't know for sure. But you can see that the other justices - many of them - have handled these issues much more carefully, much more sensitively. And I think this is an important thing for people to understand. This is not a matter of picking on Justice Clarence Thomas for some reason. He's behaving, and his wife's behaving, very differently from the others.
Chief Justice John Roberts - when he joined the court, his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, gave up her law career in order to not pose any kind of conflicts. And she stepped down from a political position she had. She was working with a nonprofit anti-abortion group that was called Feminists For Choice. She gave that up in order not to have - you know, pose these kinds of conflicts and create these problems.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she joined the appeals court - even before she got to the Supreme Court - her husband, Marty Ginsburg, who was one of the country's most successful tax lawyers, gave up his law practice in order to make sure that she was free to take cases and not have to recuse. And he became an academic. Right now Stephen Breyer, his brother, Charles Breyer, is a federal judge in San Francisco, and Stephen Breyer will not take any case that his brother has been involved in in order to, again, sidestep any kind of family conflicts.
Even closer in some ways to the situation that the Thomases have is a situation that's on the appeals court in Washington, D.C. There's a couple where the husband is the legal director of the ACLU - that's David Cole - and his wife, Nina Pillard, is a circuit court judge on the appeals court in Washington, D.C. Nina Pillard recuses herself from any case that the ACLU has been involved in, either nationally or locally, and even in a case where the ACLU has submitted an amicus brief. You know, she's absolutely fastidious on this, and it's in complete contrast to what Clarence Thomas and his wife are doing.
DAVIES: Are there efforts in Congress to change the rules that apply to the Supreme Court?
MAYER: Yes, there are. And I think probably the effort is gaining in traction because of exactly this sort of thing. There's - I mean, if you step back, there's a growing feeling, according to polls in the country, that the court is too politicized. And what it's doing is undermining respect for the Supreme Court. The most recent Gallup poll showed that it had hit historic lows in terms of Americans' respect for the court. Only 40% of the country said that they respected the court. And the reason is there's a feeling that it's becoming just another - you know, the justices are just politicians in robes. So there is an effort by Congress to try to fix some of these rules, particularly having to do with ethics, with financial disclosure and with these amicus briefs.
DAVIES: What does Chief Justice John Roberts think about all this? Do we know?
MAYER: Well, he gave an end-of-the-year statement at the end of this last year in which he tried to fend off reformers in Congress or also there's been a - Biden has appointed a committee to kind of review the Supreme Court and see if they can submit ideas for reform. And Chief Justice Roberts basically kind of gave a defiant end-of-year statement saying back off, we can handle this ourselves. So I think he - you know, he probably doesn't want anybody interfering with the way that he runs the court. But the problem is that this is becoming more and more of a political scandal.
DAVIES: Interesting. I mean, I guess it's common for people to prefer autonomy for the institutions that they head. Justice is another one. What do the legal scholars you talked to think about this position of Roberts?
MAYER: Some of the people I interviewed who are legal scholars have suggested that Thomas really has to recuse. They've suggested he really needs to recuse in any case involved in the January 6 uprising because his wife has so many ties to so many of the activists who planned those uprisings and those protests. And so there's been somewhat of a call for recusal for Justice Thomas. Others just are suggesting that they think there's just a stronger and more urgent argument for the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code itself. What the court does now is it says it self-enforces and tries to abide by the code of the other judges. But it's up to the justices to enforce it themselves. And basically, there's, I think, a growing movement, a push to try to get the court to adopt a binding code.
DAVIES: Do you have any information or did any of your sources think that Justice Roberts or other justice may have reached out to Clarence Thomas about this to make it clear they're uncomfortable with Ginni Thomas' connections to groups with business before the court?
MAYER: So I wondered about this, too. So I asked somebody who knows a lot about how the court works, and I was told that no way, that each justice sort of functions as their own law firm separately, independently, and that no justice would feel that it was appropriate to criticize another. And the way they get along with each other is by not making an issue of such things.
DAVIES: Well, Jane Mayer, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
MAYER: Well, it was so great to be with you. Thank you so much, Dave, for having me on.
DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer and chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article in the magazine is titled "Is Ginni Thomas A Threat To The Supreme Court?"
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