Under the U.S. Supreme Court: Justices get down, get funky with Tea Party

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND  |  March 6, 2011 at 3:46 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 6 (UPI) -- What are conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas thinking? In recent months, they've abandoned any pretense and begun to play a kind of public game of footsie with the Tea Party.

Can anyone imagine the other conservatives who make up the Supreme Court's five-member majority -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito -- being so politically inept?

Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, wife of the U.S. Supreme Court justice, started it all last year by founding a non-profit lobbying and organizing group designed to help Tea Party activists.

Last March, Ginni Thomas said on Liberty Central Inc.'s Web site the group would educate citizens to "preserve freedom and reaffirm the core founding principles ... (to) make a difference in the fight for liberty against the liberal Washington agenda," The Washington Post reported.

Now the Web page puts some distance between itself and parties, proclaiming: "Liberty Central is a non-partisan, 501(c)(4) non-profit organization near Washington staffed and managed by seasoned patriotic activists who have enjoyed a huge track-record of success. We owe no party our allegiance, and recognize the value of working within a two-party system."

The site also casts group leadership in heroic terms: "Each of us is a lifelong champion of liberty, with insistence on limited government. We have spoken truth to power and have not only survived, but have prospered and now encourage and inspire others to do the same."

Liberty Central is organized as a non-profit organization, is free to raise unlimited funds and for the most part is not required to make its donors public, the Post said.

Ginni Thomas resigned from Liberty Central last December following reports she left a voicemail message demanding an apology from Anita Hill, who nearly derailed Clarence Thomas's 1991 Senate confirmation hearing with allegations of sexual harassment.

Justice Thomas has refused to comment on the group -- typical of the Supreme Court justices, who rarely answer queries unless they're posed by a very few powerful favorites in the court press room.

But by all accounts the justice was considerably more steamed than he let on in public about criticism of his wife and her connection with a would-be Tea Party avatar. Politico reported last week Thomas was even more upset about criticism directed at him for attending a closed-door meeting of conservative donors sponsored by the Koch brothers.

The private meeting in January 2008 of conservative donors with big wallets was sponsored by the billionaire Koch brothers in Palm Springs, Calif., Politico said. Salon magazine said Thomas benefited from an all-expenses paid trip to the four-day meeting.

Public watchdog Common Cause told the U.S. Justice Department Thomas's connection to the conservative donors should have led him to withdraw from the case Citizens United vs. FEC. The 5-4 ruling (with Thomas in the narrow majority) last year struck down a century of restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions.

Politico said the ruling "contributed to an explosion in advertising campaigns funded with anonymous contributions in the 2010 midterm elections."

Moreover, industrialists Charles and David Koch and their subordinates have raised millions for that kind of advertising, Politico reported. The newspaper said Ginni Thomas's group received a $550,000 donation from two anonymous donors while the high court was deliberating the Citizens United case.

The newspaper said Thomas's expenses for the Palm Springs conference were paid by the Federalist Society, which also sponsored the gathering in Charlottesville, Va., in February where the justice expressed his dismay at the direction in which the country is going.

Thomas told the conservative gathering his critics were undermining the Supreme Court and eroding the ability of people to defend the American way of life, a partial recording of the speech provided to Politico showed.

Common Cause had more criticism for Thomas in January. The group said Thomas claimed on disclosure forms he received no income for "spousal non-investment income" -- even while his wife earned high salaries from the Heritage Foundation and Liberty Central.

Both groups strongly endorse the repeal of healthcare reform.

After Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called for Justice Elena Kagan to withdraw from any future Supreme Court deliberation on healthcare reform challenges because as U.S. solicitor general she had been the Obama administration's top lawyer, Democrats questioned whether Thomas also should withdraw, Salon reported.

Seventy-four House Democrats sent Thomas a letter saying he should withdraw from future deliberations on healthcare because of his wife's work as a lobbyist for the two conservative organizations, The Washington Post reported.

"The appearance of a conflict of interest merits recusal (withdrawal) under federal law," the letter to Thomas said. "From what we have already seen, the line between your impartiality and you and your wife's financial stake in the overturn of healthcare reform is blurred. Your spouse is advertising herself as a lobbyist who has 'experience and connections' and appeals to clients who want a particular decision -- they want to overturn healthcare reform. Moreover, your failure to disclose Ginny (their spelling) Thomas's receipt of $686,589 from the Heritage Foundation, a prominent opponent of healthcare reform, between 2003 and 2007 has raised great concern.

"This is not the first case where your impartiality was in question," the letter said. "As Common Cause points out, you 'participated in secretive political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the [5-4] decision' on the Citizens United case. Your spouse also received an undisclosed salary paid for by undisclosed donors as CEO of Liberty Central, a 501(c)(4) organization that stood to benefit from the decision and played an active role in the 2010 elections."

Thomas's closest philosophical brother on the high court, Scalia, also has been taking criticism for a behind-doors brush with the Tea Party.

In early February, Scalia talked to the Tea Party Caucus in Washington at the invitation of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Common Cause again raised the question of whether Scalia should recuse himself from future deliberations on healthcare reform, Howard University's The District Chronicles reported.

The District Chronicles article presented a panoply of critics who suggested Scalia's conduct was unethical.

Not so fast, The Wall Street Journal said.

The Journal points out that TalkingPointsMemo.com reported Jan. 25 Scalia's seminar on the Constitution was open to all representatives, not just Tea Party members of Congress, though it was organized by the Tea Party caucus.

Two liberal Democrats, Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Jerrold Nadler of New York, attended. Both "vouched for Scalia and the event, and dispelled the notion that anything untoward happened," the Web site quoted Nadler as saying.

Still, Scalia had accepted an invitation to speak from a group dedicated to repealing healthcare reform, an issue likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

Scalia has been accused before of having a tin ear when it comes to conflict of interest.

During the Bush administration, the conservative justice took a duck hunting trip to Lousiana with Vice President Dick Cheney and others, getting a lift on Air Force Two. The trip came as the Supreme Court was deliberating whether Cheney should be compelled to release the names of those invited to his closed-door deliberations on Bush administration energy policy.

Public interest groups alleged that Cheney had invited oil companies and other members of the private energy sector to the table

Scalia refused requests to withdraw, saying he had paid for his own way round-trip and didn't discuss anything with the vice president. He eventually voted with the 7-2 Supreme Court majority in Cheney's favor, and the names of those invited to the energy policy table remained secret.

The thought of the equally pudgy Scalia and Cheney waddling around the private Louisiana farm shooting at half-tame ducks was funny to some, but critics at the time said the whole episode called Scalia's judgment into question when it came to conflicts of interest.

Why does all this coziness between Supreme Court justices and vehement political activists apparently shock us? Perhaps it's because Washington has evolved in the last five or six decades.

The nation's capital used to be a far more clubby setting with a lot of the characteristics of a small town, at least as far as its elite is concerned.

Back in the day, Supreme Court justices partied with Kennedys, played poker with Harry Truman, drank cocktails with FDR and allegedly slept with women other than their wives. But those activities were rarely reported. In those days, it was liberal Democrats, not conservative Republicans, who played footsie with the politicians.

The classic case was the relationship between Justice Abe Fortas and President Lyndon Johnson. Historians say Johnson named Fortas to the high court to head off legal challenges to Johnson's legislative initiatives.

Fortas supposedly even helped to write Johnson's State of the Union address in 1966.

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