“Have you no sense of decency?”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left, has been acting as if it’s irrelevant that his wife, Virginia Thomas, center, coconspired in attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It’s not. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS, File

Those words were spoken in 1954 by Boston attorney Joseph Welch, who was defending the Army against specious charges by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, R.-Wis., that it had allowed communists to infiltrate a secret military facility.

Revealed to the American public as having no decency when it came to grandstanding, McCarthy’s four-year witch hunt to persecute communists finally ended. So, too, did his political career, leaving in its wake many victims whose views might have been progressive but weren’t communist.

Nearly 70 years later, the same question must be asked of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: Have you no sense of decency? There is no valid excuse for his continued refusal to recuse himself from expected cases concerning the coup-like attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Decency requires Thomas to change his mind. While he may deny any conflict of interest requiring his recusal, an obvious one exists. His wife, Virginia Thomas, not only participated in unsavory attempts to declare Donald Trump the election’s winner but also was a coconspirator in the effort.

It has been confirmed by those she contacted that the justice’s wife personally emailed legislators in both Wisconsin and Arizona a week after the election and urged them to ignore their states’ popular votes and choose electors who would cast their ballots in the Electoral College for Trump instead of Joe Biden.


Thomas has been acting as if his wife’s activities have no bearing on him as a Supreme Court justice. He wants people to believe that the couple have never discussed what is obviously an important matter to her, but it’s hard to believe the subject never came up.

Even if the justice and his wife never said a word to each other about what she was doing, her activities on behalf of Trump taint any position he might take on cases concerning the 2020 election or the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by rebellious Trump supporters who criminally forced their way into the U.S. Capitol.

Whether it’s the town magistrate or a Supreme Court justice, all judges know that even the suggestion of impropriety is enough to disqualify them for that job in the minds of the general public. An appointee to the highest court in the land shouldn’t need to be told that, given the exacting interrogation one must undergo before confirmation.

Thomas, of all people, should know how much perceptions matter. His nomination was almost scuttled by accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a former coworker at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, his 1991 appointment was confirmed while law professor Hill’s reputation wrongly suffers to this day in some circles.

Little can be done about Thomas’ current intransigence. He is not accused of any crime that would warrant his removal from office. Even if he were, his departure would be unlikely.

Thomas doesn’t need to wait for anyone else to act. He can do the right thing now. Even some legal scholars who previously supported his wife’s right to take political positions say she crossed the line by asking state officials to alter an election’s outcome. Knowing the wife of a Supreme Court justice emailed them personally had to carry some weight with the legislators, even if they didn’t abide by her wishes.


Not even his fellow court conservatives supported a Trump motion earlier this year to block the release of White House documents related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, but Thomas did. His impartiality has gone beyond being suspect; it doesn’t appear to exist. The decent thing for him to do is recuse himself from any cases related not just to the storming of the Capitol, but the 2020 election itself.

That is, if he has any decency left.


The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board

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