WASHINGTON – Virginia Thomas is an experienced political activist with ties to the tea party movement. She's an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration. She's also the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
She's now in the spotlight for her out-of-the-blue phone call asking Anita Hill to apologize for a 19-year-old sexual harassment accusation that nearly kept him off the court.
Neither she nor Hill was commenting on the phone call Wednesday. A day earlier, Hill said she stood by what she said in 1991 at Thomas' confirmation hearings. The justice's wife described her call to Hill as "extending an olive branch."
At Brandeis University, where Hill now teaches, some students wondered what all the fuss was about. They said they hadn't heard of Hill or the justice.
Though Virginia Thomas offered no explanation about the timing of her phone call, The New York Times had published a front-page story on her political activism on Oct. 9, the day she placed the call. Almost exactly 19 years earlier, Clarence Thomas was in an unanticipated fight to be confirmed because of Hill's explosive allegations that he sexually harassed her at the two federal agencies where Thomas was her boss.
Virginia Thomas is easily the most politically active Supreme Court spouse, having worked for the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and at the Heritage Foundation, a Republican-leaning think tank in Washington.
Her latest role is as the founder of Liberty Central, a new nonprofit group that opposes what she has described as a power grab by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
"Our current government sees the Constitution ... as an inconvenience and an impediment," she said at a speech in August that is available on the C-SPAN website.
She praised conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Levin's books include an attack on the Supreme Court, "Men in Black: How The Supreme Court is Destroying America."
She also spoke positively about some of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Steve King of Iowa and Mike Pence of Indiana.
The justice's wife has strenuously criticized several Obama legislative successes, including financial regulation and the health care overhaul. The latter is described on Liberty Central's site as "dangerous to health and freedom."
Ethics expert Steven Lubet, who teaches law at Northwestern University, said Virginia Thomas' role as health overhaul critic should not pose a problem for her husband if the high court eventually passes judgment on the law, as seems likely.
"Those two things are pretty separate," Lubet said, adding that it is more and more the case that both spouses in power couples can have prominent roles. "This is the natural result of changes in American society that began 50 years ago."
Federal judges are supposed to step aside from cases if they have real or perceived conflicts of interest. Justice Thomas has not taken part in some cases because his son, Jamal, works in the financial sector.
He was a member of the five-justice majority that decided Bush v. Gore in favor of George W. Bush in 2000, even as his wife was at Heritage gathering resumes for job-seekers in a potential Bush administration.
The source of Liberty Central's financial support could make for a closer call, Lubet said. The group has not disclosed a list of donors, and it is not clear whether the justice knows who they are. In any event, he has not stepped aside from any case since Liberty Central became active in recent months.
If the justice has been bothered by his wife's activism, he has not expressed it publicly. In 1996, after a Democratic lawmaker pointedly criticized Virginia Thomas at a hearing and identified her as "Mrs. Clarence Thomas in that bright blue dress," her husband reportedly left her a teasing phone message in which he sang parts of "Devil With a Blue Dress On."
Shortly after he joined the Supreme Court, Thomas told the court's in-house newsletter that his wife had had to rein in her political opinions because of his new job.
"It has interfered with her freedom to express herself the way she really wants to," Thomas said. "She has had to learn to live with that and be more constrained. Because she has strong opinions on things."
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