Doubting the Thomases


As couples go, Clarence and Virginia Thomas already have done a great deal more than most family units to define the meaning of the Constitution. After all, Justice Clarence Thomas alone speaks for 35 million or so Americans each time he exercises his 1/9th proxy vote at the United States Supreme Court. And he has done so now for nearly two decades, shaping the rule of law each time he signs his name to a ruling, win or lose, concurrence or dissent.

But apparently the justice's front-row seat at the creation and interpretation of constitutional doctrine isn't good enough for his wife, "Ginny." Long a conservative activist (like her husband only more vocal), Ginny Thomas now is pledging to start her own "Tea Party" group to "get the Constitution back to a place where it means something." It's time to fight against "tyranny," she told a fellow activist at last month's Conservative Political Action Committee gathering. I've got nothing against Ginny Thomas' desire to hop on the "Tea Party" bandwagon now that it's rolling toward the 2010 elections. It's a free country and anyone who confesses in public to "listening carefully" to Glenn Beck probably was heading for Teapartydom anyway. But what a bizarre and provocative choice of words to describe her cause! And what an abdication of her identity as a Washington insider responsible (to some extent, anyway) for whatever mess she now seeks to criticizes!

What part of the Constitution does she believe no longer means anything? What role does she ascribe to the Supreme Court, and to her husband, in making this so? To what particular "place" would she like to bring the Constitution and who would she like to help her along the way? What part of our current constitutional structure does she believe is leading us toward "tyranny?" And just exactly how does she define that word, tyranny? The same way Thomas Jefferson did or the same way Justice Clarence Thomas now does? And who in official Establishment Washington really fears tyranny anyway?

These are now legitimate questions for the justice's better half, a government spouse who has just criticized her husband's co-workers in front of the whole world. She should answer those questions fully not just because the nation now has a right to know her mind on topics so closely connected to her husband's vital job. But because her answers will likely help us better understand the justice's mind as well. Does he see himself the same way, waging a mighty struggle each day against tyranny? Heroically striving with each ruling to keep the Constitution from dissolving into meaninglessness? Wouldn't you like to know these things about Justice Thomas?

I would. The Constitution Ginny Thomas decries belongs much more to her husband than it does to you or me or 300 million other Americans. In fact, it is fully 1/9th his after all these years. And so here's my offer. If she promises to answer those questions for me, I promise I will come over one day and have some tea at one of her parties. And maybe a few of those little sandwiches without the crust as well.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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