Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Virginia, urged the Trump White House to do everything it could to overturn the 2020 presidential election. That fact came to light when a group of text messages she sent to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was revealed in late March. Those messages, which were being reviewed as part of the House Select Committee’s investigation of the Jan. 6 riot, were leaked, as CNN put it, by “multiple sources familiar with the messages.”

Relying on anonymous sources is one of my least favorite things in journalism. But in this case, the documents were real, not simply some whispered calumny from partisan hacks. The reaction from at least one side of the political divide was swift: How could Justice Thomas maintain that he was independent and not influenced by his wife when ruling on election-related cases? Didn’t these texts turn Mrs. Thomas into one big conflict of interest for the justice?

“There oughtta be a law” is a phrase any government reporter hears often. It’s the public and legislators’ knee-jerk response when bad things happen. But in the case of the Supreme Court, you may be surprised to know that there is no law or rule barring conflicts of interest.

In lower courts, writes University of Dayton legal scholar Kevin Leske, the Code of Conduct for United States Judges governs ethical behavior. But over many years, “the Supreme Court of the United States has cast aside pleas to adopt an ethics code for the justices.”

Leske examines the failed attempts by Congress to get the Supreme Court to adopt such rules; he also looks at the arguments for why Congress’ efforts may well have been unconstitutional. If trust in an institution translates into legitimacy, all this may pose a problem for the court.

“In the end,” Leske writes, “it really boils down to how much faith the public places in the nine members of the nation’s court of last resort.”

Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Society

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife, conservative activist Virginia Thomas, at an October 2021 event. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Clarence Thomas and his wife’s text messages highlight missing ethics rules at the Supreme Court

Kevin Leske, University of Dayton

Conflicts of interest at the Supreme Court are nothing new. But no one has found a way to fix them.

Wearing his military uniform, Jackie Robinson signs a contract on Oct. 23, 1945 to becomes the first Black to play with a white professional baseball team. Bettmann/Getty Images

Jackie Robinson was a Republican until the GOP became the ‘white man’s party’

Chris Lamb, IUPUI

Like millions of other Blacks during the first half of the 20th Century, legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson was a republican. That changed when the GOP opposed voting rights for Blacks.

Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020. Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

Human rights declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, in countries from Angola to the US to New Zealand

Stephen Bagwell, University of Missouri-St. Louis

All of the 39 countries human rights experts tracked in 2020 experienced a decline in human rights. It’s not yet clear whether countries will quickly bounce back as the pandemic eases.

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