"I did not give up my First Amendment rights when my husband became a justice of the Supreme Court."


That's Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking to National Public Radio about the widespread criticism she's received for her involvement in the conservative activist website LibertyCentral.org. Sunday's LA Times, for instance, worried that the "tea party-linked group…could test the traditional notions of political impartiality for the court":

The move by Virginia Thomas, 52, into the front lines of politics stands in marked contrast to the rarefied culture of the nation's highest court, which normally prizes the appearance of nonpartisanship and a distance from the fisticuffs of the politics of the day….

"I think the American public expects the justices to be out of politics," said University of Texas law school professor Lucas A. "Scot" Powe, a court historian.

He said the expectations for spouses are far less clear. "I really don't know because we've never seen it," Powe said.

On the other hand, notes UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, judges with politically active spouses aren't entirely unheard of:

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).