Liberty Central

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

Liberty Central Inc. is a 501(c)(4) Tea Party-affiliated nonprofit lobbying group who aims to "connect the grassroots to the political class" and whose website is "constantly assessing proposals that would limit liberty in America."[1] The group was launched in January 2010 by Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, raising questions about political impartiality for the nation's highest court. Thomas left the group in December 2010, but appears to have maintained close ties to the group. [2][3] After Thomas' departure, the group merged with the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty.[2]

Supreme Court Impartiality?

Although Americans generally expect justices to be politically neutral, and judicial rules prohibit judges from participating in political activity, those rules don’t extend to spouses. As the Los Angeles Times reports, "[t]he 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." [4]

At the time the group was formed in January 2010, legal ethicists pointed to the fact that Thomas' husband had sided with the majority in the Citizens United decision, in effect making it possible for Liberty Central to operate with unlimited funding from secret donors. Further questions arose in July 2010 when POLITICO revealed that Liberty Central had received an anonymous $550,000 donation while Justice Thomas and the U.S. Supreme Court were deliberating over the case. [5]

Common Cause Alleges Justice Thomas Should Have Recused in Citizens United

In January 2011, Common Cause submitted a letter to the Justice Department alleging that Justice Thomas should have recused himself from the Citizens United case and that “the complete lack of transparency of Liberty Central’s finances makes it difficult to assess the full scope of the ethics issues raised by Ms. Thomas’ role in founding and leading the group.”[6] The letter also pointed to possible conflicts of interests arising from the attendance by Justices Thomas and Scalia at events sponsored by the Koch brothers.

"Thomas’s role as a de facto tea party lobbyist and — until recently — as head of a tea party group that worked to defeat Democrats in November 2010 “show a new level of arrogance of just not caring that the court is being politicized and how that undermines the historic image of the Supreme Court as being above the political fray,” Arn Pearson, a lawyer for Common Cause, tells Politico. [3]

More concerns have arisen since Virginia Thomas announced the formation of her lobbying firm Liberty Consulting (whose website claims it will use Thomas' “experience and connections” to help clients “with “governmental affairs efforts” and offer "advice on optimizing political investments for charitable giving in the non-profit world or political causes."). Think Progress has pointed out that Thomas' work advising clients on how to donate money to political causes could have been facilitated by her husband's vote in Citizens United; the decision enabled corporations to spend unlimited money influencing elections, and she can now make a living advising corporations on how to direct that spending. [7]

Democrats Ask Justice Thomas for Recusal from Health Care Challenges

In February 2011, seventy four House Democrats sent a letter to Justice Thomas asking that he recuse himself from hearing any challenge to the Affordable Care Act on grounds that his wife's political and financial interests were tied to overturning healthcare reform. [8] The letter stated, in part:

"The appearance of a conflict of interest merits recusal under federal law," the House Democrats wrote. "From what we have already seen, the line between your impartiality and you and your wife's financial stake in the overturn of health-care reform is blurred. Your spouse is advertising herself as a lobbyist who has 'experience and connections' and appeals to clients who want a particular decision -- they want to overturn health-care reform. Moreover, your failure to disclose Ginny Thomas's receipt of $686,589 from the Heritage Foundation, a prominent opponent of health-care reform, between 2003 and 2007 has raised great concern."

The entire letter can be read here.

Corporate funding increases impartiality concerns

Since the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision permitted corporate dollars to flow into political campaigns, Liberty Central and Liberty Consulting will accept donations from corporations, and be permitted to spend those funds advocating for candidates. In addition to possible conflicts of interest arising from Justice Thomas hearing a case related to the group’s political activities, concerns also exist were he to face a decision involving one of Liberty Central’s donors.

This concern is exacerbated because Liberty Central is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, allowing the group to raise unlimited amounts of corporate money and largely avoid disclosing its donors. As reported by Slate Magazine's Emily Bazelon:

As a 501(c)(4), the group can raise unlimited money for lobbying without identifying all its donors. So how will we know whether Thomas is taking himself out of every relevant case? Liberty Central should err on the side of disclosure—let's see if it does. This is particularly salient because Justice Thomas, and Justice Thomas alone, will make the decision about whether to sit out a case. Recusal calls by the individual justices aren't reviewed by the court as a whole, or any other body. "That's the real problem," Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode says. "There's no structure for oversight. I'd say most of the time judges do the right thing, but when they don't, there's very little you can do about it. [9]

Virginia Thomas, Liberty Central's Founder

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Virginia Thomas has long been a passionate voice for conservative views. She has worked for former Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with strong ties to the GOP." [4] Further, according to the Liberty Central website, Ms. Thomas "is a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham and other talk radio hosts," and "is intrigued by Glenn Beck." [10] See also the SourceWatch entry on Virginia Thomas.

Contact

Web site: http://www.libertycentral.org/

Liberty Central does not publish its physical address on its Web site.

References

  1. News page, Liberty Central website, accessed February, 2011
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kenneth Vogel, Clarence Thomas's wife, Ginni, reportedly quits Liberty Central, POLITICO, November 15, 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kenneth P. Vogel and Marin Cogan and John Bresnahan, Justice Thomas's wife now lobbyist, POLITICO, Feb. 4, 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Justice's Wife Launches 'Tea Party' Group, Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2010
  5. Kenneth Vogel, Secret donors makes Thomas's wife's group a tea party player, POLITICO, July 6, 2010.
  6. Common Cause letter to the Justice Department re: Conflicts on Interest in Citizens United Case, accessed February 2011.
  7. Ian Millheiser, Is Ginni Thomas Getting Rich Off Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court Decisions?, Think Progress, Feb. 4, 2011.
  8. Felicia Sonmez, [House Democrats say Justice Thomas should recuse himself in health-care case http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2011/02/house-democrats-say-justice-th.html], Washington Post, Feb. 09, 2011, accessed Feb. 10, 2011.
  9. Ginni Thomas Brings the Tea Party to the Supreme Court, Slate Magazine, March 16 2010
  10. Bio page Liberty Central website, accessed March 2010