Justice Thomas and Judge Reinhardt

Today’s L.A. Times print edition carries an article with the headline, “Challenging a judicial norm,” and the subhead, “A justice’s wife may test impartiality standards by starting a ‘tea party’ group.” (The online version has a different headline and a slightly different subhead.) The article is about Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has just founded Liberty Central Inc., a conservative activist group.

Of course, Justice Thomas is not the only judge to have had a spouse in a prominent political role. Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s wife, Ramona Ripston, has just stepped down from being head of the Southern California ACLU. Third Circuit Judge Jane Roth’s husband was a U.S. Senator; Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell’s husband is a governor. So I’m not sure that there’s really a judicial norm that judge’s spouses should stay out of politics, whether partisan politics, advocacy group politics, or public interest litigation (itself a form of politics, at least when done effectively).

And while the matter hasn’t to my knowledge arisen as to the U.S. Supreme Court, that might have chiefly been a matter of small numbers and the recency of women’s substantial participation in politics, rather than of any consciously accepted norm. All but three Supreme Court Justices have been men. Until recently, women haven’t been involved either in partisan or ideological politics at nearly the level we see now. And it makes sense that of the few male Justices who have served during an era when men their age have wives who might be interested in politics, only one has had a wife who was indeed interesting in that sort of thing. At the circuit judge level, the numbers are just much greater, as are the numbers of female judges whose husbands are interested in politics.

What we have here is the inevitable result of the growing equality of women, the resulting growing tendency of lawyers to marry lawyers (and lawyers are disproportionately likely to go into politics), and the general tendency of people to marry others like them. It makes sense that many judges these days are women whose husbands are of the profession, social class, and cast of mind that makes them want to go into politics. It makes sense that many male judges have wives who are likewise likely to be interested in politics. And of course since spouses are supposed to help each other (and much such help is entirely legitimate), the success of one may yield more opportunities for the other.

Nor does this strike me as particularly pernicious or dangerous: Judges have plenty of political and ideological predispositions that they bring to the job from their earlier lives, and of course they have judicial philosophies that often make them in sync with particular political groups. That too is inevitable, and the fact that a spouse (or a child) has a high-profile political position doesn’t add much, I think, to those existing predispositions. In particular, I don’t think that the desire to remove any such mild additional influence of the judges justifies limiting the lives of the judge’s spouses and children. Virginia Thomas, like Ramona Ripston, should be free to go where her beliefs and talents take her, without having her spouse’s job cripple those ambitions.

It’s true, of course, that in some situations a judge might have to recuse himself because of a spouse’s or child’s involvement in a case. Judge Reinhardt, for instance, had always recused himself, if I’m not mistaken, in cases involving the Southern California ACLU. But those should generally be relatively rare situations, and limited to the family member’s actual involvement in a case and not just the family member’s political or ideological sympathy or alliance with a party.

And whatever people might think about the bottom line, I’d just be happy if discussions of this issue as to the Thomases would likewise discuss the Ripston/Reinhardts, the Roths, and the Rendells.

UPDATE: I originally said that Judge Reinhardt recuses himself from ACLU cases; his policy actually appears to be that he recuses himself from cases involving the ACLU of Southern California, so I corrected the post accordingly.