Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Ginni, is a conservative activist who urged President Donald Trump’s then-chief of staff to pursue overturning the election. She’s been moving in conservative political activist circles in Washington, D.C., for decades as a consultant. And Democrats recently proposed an addition to the annual defense spending bill that, if passed, would keep her work (and the work of any other federal judge’s spouse) out of public view.
This wide-ranging measure seeks to protect judges and allow them to do their work with the knowledge their families will be safe. Instead, because of its broad mandate, the Supreme Court—the judicial branch that needs the most reform—will benefit. Federal judiciary members are already entitled to reimbursement for a home security system, but this bill takes protection out of the real world and focuses it on online information, allowing the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to remove personal information about judges or their family members from the internet.
Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, all New Jersey Democrats, originally unveiled the legislation in September 2020, after Daniel Anderl, the son of a federal judge, was shot and killed at the family’s New Jersey home that July. It didn’t pass Congress as a standalone bill that year, but Sherrill secured its inclusion in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is all but guaranteed to pass as an end-of-year priority for both parties.
“The ease of access to free or inexpensive sources of covered information has considerably lowered the effort required for malicious actors to discover where individuals live and where they spend leisure hours and to find information about their family members,” the bill says.
What qualifies as personal information? Federal judiciary members can ask that information like social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank account numbers, and credit card numbers get scrubbed from the internet. Fair enough. The law also seeks to block things like a home address (good!) or where a minor goes to school or daycare (great!).
But it’s not just federal judges that this will apply to; it also applies to “at-risk individuals,” meaning their children, their family members, or simply someone living at the same residence. Federal judges and other “at-risk individuals” could ask for the name of an employer or the employer’s address to be removed—pretty important information if you’re interested in holding a judge accountable for conflicts of interests and potential financial benefits.
“At any given time there are 1,200 to 1,400 federal judges and they are each expected to conduct themselves ethically. But there is no internal watchdog who is helping them figure out if they’re doing that,” Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, told Jezebel. “If there’s information about them being censored from the internet, it makes it harder to make sure these public officials are conducting themselves above board.”
Roth gave the example of Judge Neil Gorsuch selling his house in Colorado following his confirmation. Who bought the house and directly financially benefited an incoming justice? “If Gorsuch is able to scrub that information from the internet, I can’t do the research that leads to the accountability, if the information isn’t out there,” he said (though he noted that the sale didn’t have any nefarious ends as far as he could tell).
Menendez tried to head off criticism that censoring this type of information could ultimately protect them from reasonable inquiry, saying in a statement, “In no way does our bill prevent journalists from reporting on matters of public concern.” But I, for one, do not trust this conservative judiciary—which would, realistically, ultimately decide how broadly this measure is interpreted—to take that to heart.
Anderl was killed by a self-proclaimed anti-feminist lawyer, per local media, who argued at least one case before Anderl’s mother, Judge Esther Salas, before shooting Anderl at the family home’s front door. It was undoubtedly tragic, but these Democrats’ instinct to expand protections for federal judges and their families resulted in an overly broad policy, according to Roth.
I don’t think we should be posting judges’ husbands’ social security numbers on Twitter, but I do think we should be aware if those husbands work for a company that’s bringing a case in their spouses’ chambers. It’s a pretty basic way for the public to determine whether or not a judge might have a conflict of interest: Does a judge financially benefit—even if via their spouse—from someone presenting in or filing with their court? “I would like to know what the hell [their] family is up to, too,” Roth said.
While critics frequently point to Ginni Thomas’s long-standing conservative activism, she’s not the only Supreme Court spouse whose work raises eyebrows. After Amy Coney Barrett was appointed, her husband’s less-than-20-person law firm opened its first Washington, D.C. law office. I wonder why it decided D.C. was the place for a new outpost?? Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife, Jane Roberts, also works in the legal space. She’s a headhunter for high-powered law firms and lawyers, whose firm can earn six figures when it places a single attorney, according to Politico. While Jane’s workplace is listed on Roberts’ ethics forms, what’s not listed is which firms and lawyers contract her and whether they do business before his court.
In a time when America is clamoring for more transparency at the Supreme Court, a bill that could further cloud justices’ ties to conservative reactionaries is the wrong step.