RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The wife of a Supreme Court justice is joining the Tea Party movement. Virginia Thomas, whose husband is Justice Clarence Thomas, has formed a new organization to promote the movement's ideals.
Virginia Thomas has worked for conservative politicians and organizations before, but her new role is raising questions about potential conflicts of interest for her husband. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Virginia Thomas has long been allied with political conservatives. She was a top aide to Republican House Leader Dick Armey, and in 2000, while�Bush versus Gore�was before the Supreme Court, she was working at the conservative Heritage Foundation, helping to recruit staff for a possible Bush administration.
Now she's president and CEO of a political startup called�Liberty Central that advertises itself as linked to the Tea Party movement and its values. As Thomas put it, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington...
Ms. VIRGINIA THOMAS (President, Liberty Central): I have come to know and love the Tea Party Patriots. It has been a privilege to become a bit of an ambassador of sorts for the National Board.
TOTENBERG: Mrs. Thomas describers herself on her organization's Web site as a fan of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts. Her organization, she said, will correct the record and tell the truth that the mainstream media does not.
Ms. THOMAS: The hard-left agenda just isn't going down well, because once hope and change got transparent and put into legislative language, we saw what they were doing and it was a big, old power grab.
TOTENBERG: Legal ethics experts agree there's nothing in the Judicial Code of Conduct that prevents the spouse of a judge or justice from taking public political positions.
NYU law professor Stephen Gillers, author of a leading text on legal ethics, says that judges are supposed to ensure that they do not sit on cases in which their spouses have a financial interest. But, he adds...
Professor STEPHEN GILLERS (Law, New York University): Ideological issues, as opposed to monetary ones, are not a subject of concern. That is, a spouse of a judge can have a full political life, and take positions on political issues and legal issues, even ones that come before his or her spouse.
TOTENBERG: That does not mean that Mrs. Thomas' role in her new organization is problem-free. She's said she will accept contributions from a variety of sources, including corporations, under campaign finance rules recently loosened by the Supreme Court. Again, Professor Gillers.
Prof. GILLERS: The crunch point comes if Mrs. Thomas' 501C4 gets substantial contributions from companies or trade associations that have interests in matters that are pending at the Supreme Court, or headed for the Supreme Court.
TOTENBERG: The public would be rightfully suspicious, says Gillers, if hypothetically, for example, a week after Justice Thomas were to rule in favor of a corporation or affected trade association, it turned out that either made a substantial contribution to the Mrs. Thomas's organization.
Should Mrs. Thomas's activities raise any conflict of interest questions for her husband, he is the person who would decide whether to recuse himself from a case.
Federal judges in the lower courts can be removed from a case over a conflict but in the Supreme Court, the individual justices make the decision for themselves, and it's not subject to review by anyone else.
Justice Thomas has declined to comment about his wife's new role. But last night Mrs. Thomas issued a statement saying, quote, "I did not give up my First Amendment rights when my husband became a justice of the Supreme Court. My involvement with LibertyCentral.org has been vetted by the Supreme Court ethics office and Liberty Central's own board of directors."
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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