Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas who emerged as a tea party figurehead in the past year, has taken her conservative activism to another phase. The self-titled “ambassador to the Tea Party movement” recently launched a political consulting business that, according to the company’s website, libertyinc.co, will assist and advocate on behalf of “liberty-loving citizens” and entities that seek to advance conservative ideals such as limited government and free enterprise.

But given her husband’s seat in the nation’s highest court, political observers and government watchdogs said, the move raises ethical questions—similar to concerns that arose when Thomas was president and CEO of Liberty Central, a conservative website that she founded in May 2010.

“It seems as though she will be working with issues involving legislation that may come before the Supreme Court and working with people involved in political efforts whose organizations may come before the Supreme Court—and that’s a problem,” said Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor and Supreme Court expert at American University.

“ has to act in the most ethical way and that includes the longtime standard of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. And that means that they ought to be working in different aspects of the universe,” Wermiel continued. “She wants to promote democracy and liberty, let her go be a school teacher and teach about democracy or liberty or find something that isn’t directly in her husband’s path.”

The academician, who reported on the court for the Wall Street Journal from 1979 until 1991, said to maintain the high court’s integrity, Justice Thomas would have to recuse himself from cases for which his wife has lobbied. But given that Liberty Consulting also purports to offer political advice, Mrs. Thomas’ involvement in a case may not always be clear, which could put Justice Thomas in a “difficult” position.

“But, he’s also not particularly sensitive to this problem,” Wermiel said, “so I don’t think he’ll find it to be a difficult position.”

That seeming insensitivity—evidenced in conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent closed-door presentation before the Tea Party Caucus—points to a creeping politicization of the Supreme Court, said Common Cause, a liberal government watchdog group.

“It is troubling that some members of the court—and I’m speaking about Scalia and Thomas at this point—don’t seem to have the concern about appearance and bias that is at the core of judicial code of ethics…. It seems they just don’t care,” Common Cause Vice President for Programs Arn Pearson told the AFRO. He added, “It raises a number of red flags about the ability of the justices to be neutral or just as importantly to appear to be neutral and unbiased when cases come before the court in which there is strong division between the tea party and the administration” such as health care reform, climate change and campaign finance.

In response to the ethical concerns raised by Mrs. Thomas’ new lobbying shop and other recent events, Pearson said Common Cause plans to send a proposal to Congress asking that it expand the conflict of interest statutes in the judicial code of conduct to include political activities.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO