WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas bowed out of a case at the center of a congressional committee’s power to investigate, an announcement made on the first day of a new term where the justices face increased scrutiny from Congress and the public over ethics rules.
The court, without Thomas, declined Monday to hear an appeal from attorney John Eastman, who sought to overturn a lower-court decision that gave a House select committee access to his emails with former President Donald Trump.
Thomas did not explain his decision to recuse from the case, and did not have to, one of several issues backers of an ethics code at the court have sought to change.
Democrats previously had called on Thomas to remove himself from cases related to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, pointing to reports that his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, exchanged texts with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows related to an effort to overturn Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.
Ginni Thomas in Sept. 2022 appeared for a voluntary interview before the now-disbanded House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Another potential reason: Eastman served as a clerk for Justice Thomas, and at several points in select committee hearings, witnesses said Eastman had discussed how Thomas may rule if the Electoral College issue came before the Supreme Court.
The Eastman appeal stemmed from a trial court ruling that allowed the select committee to access to some of Eastman’s emails with Trump. Eastman was the author of a strategy for Congress to reject the Electoral College votes of several states President Joe Biden won.
The ruling from Judge David O. Carter in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California said that “the illegality of the plan was obvious” and that the emails between the two could not be subject to attorney-client privilege.
Justices recused themselves from 15 cases of the hundreds listed in Monday’s orders, but only Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan cited reasons for their recusal.
In one, a suit against the Transportation Security Administration, Jackson cited her prior service as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In another, Kagan cited her prior work in the government to recuse from a criminal case.
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