That Damned 19th Amendment…

The New York Times has an article on Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. She was active in conservative political circles before she met her husband, toned it down a bit for some time after, but now is getting back in touch with her beliefs and activism — especially the Tea Party movement.

The question of the political activities of the spouses of prominent public officials is a tricky one. On the one hand, they are legally bound together, and in many ways are seen as one in the eyes of the law. Debts incurred by one are binding on the other, for one example. They are also immune from testifying against one another in court, in most cases — which is kind of an extension of the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

On the other hand, one’s spouse is not one’s property. “My wife” or “my husband” is a specifier, not an indication of possession. One is not expected to give up one’s identity when one marries — no matter what position the spouse might hold.

It’s a tough subject, and it’s certainly valid to question the potential improper influence — to steal a very useful term from the Catholic Church, an “occasion of sin” — that can arise from the spouse of a powerful official taking on roles of influence.

In cases like this, it can be enlightening to discuss the matters with others in similar positions. However, my attempts to broach the subject with a few prominent political spouses met with failure.

Bill Clinton, husband of the Secretary of State, when I finally got through to him at a certain sorority house, had other matters on his mind. When pressed for comment, all he would say was “it’s been over four hours! I’ve gotta get to a doctor!”

Tipper Gore and Elizabeth Edwards were in a seminar on making voodoo dolls.

Finally, the attorneys representing Monica Conyers and Patrice Tierney said their clients were unavailable, would be unavailable for some time, and would not be inclined to comment even if they were.

And that’s a shame. Those last two women — especially Mrs. Conyers, with her own history as an elected official and her husband’s position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — could offer some great insights into the concerns raised by Mrs. Thomas engaging in political activism.

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