Doubting Thomases

Doubting Thomases


Leonard Zwelling

It should come as no surprise that The New York Times calls for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to resign while The Wall Street Journal makes little of the texts from Justice Thomas’ wife Ginni to Mark Meadows, then President Trump’s chief of staff, about how Mr. Meadows must make sure that Mr. Trump does not concede defeat after the November 2020 elections. This becomes a bit important because Justice Thomas was the only dissenting vote on the Supreme Court when it determined that the Trump White House could not block the release of records concerning January 6. The issue addressed by both editorials is whether or not Justice Thomas is in an irreconcilable conflict of interest because of his wife’s highly partisan political activities. Should Justice Thomas recuse himself from all matters concerning January 6 and the Trump White House? Should he, in fact, resign because of the undue influence of his very partisan wife?

This is a tough one and one that I had to struggle with myself once.

When I began to oversee the administration of the clinical trials apparatus at MD Anderson in 1995, I told my broker/financial adviser to sell all the pharmaceutical stocks in my portfolio. Not only was this financially painful, it was also emotionally tough because some of those stocks were gifted to my wife by her late father. In essence, she, then a faculty member and not yet a Division Head, had to pay a price for my professional activities. I did not see that I could adjudicate any disputes with the pharma industry or sign contracts involving that industry if I owned shares in drug companies. (Remember, in Texas, I own what she owns). I just felt it was better to just get that off the table as an influence on my decision making even if it was only in the appearance of potential conflicts of interest that my judgment might be questioned. Appearance is everything in conflict of interest issues and that’s the reason why clinical research faculty ought not take anything of value from the drug company sponsors for whom they do research including honoraria.

Ginni Thomas is a very active political operative in Republican circles and has the ear of prominent politicians in Washington. Her husband is in a position to make decisions about what those politicians do and the fate of the legislation they pass. More and more, the Supreme Court has become the final arbiter of law and policy as the Congress seems unwilling or unable to grapple with issues like abortion, transgender athletes, gay marriage and affirmative action. The question is whether or not Clarence Thomas is unduly influenced by his wife. The answer is—who knows? Thus, Mr. Thomas is operating under the appearance of a conflict and seems unwilling to acknowledge it or recuse himself when such a recusal would be warranted.

I do not think he ought to resign even as I think he should never have been appointed given the testimony of Anita Hill. She was always more credible than he was. The same is true of Brett Kavanaugh who should never have been appointed given the accusations of sexual assault made by a credible witness during his hearings.

It appears that there may be a double standard with regard to Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican vs. Democratic Presidents. It really is up to the individual justice or appointee to live with the notion of sexual harassment (Thomas and Kavanaugh) or conflict of interest (Thomas).

When the BW had to pay the price for my professional activities, she did not flinch. We sold the stock. Mr. Thomas obviously has rather fluid ideas about sexual harassment and conflict of interest. I guess that’s the danger of an appointment for life.

Oh yes, we own drug equity now. Neither my wife nor myself make decisions that will be influenced by our portfolios any longer.

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