Clarence Thomas’s Clerks: An ‘Extended Family’ With Reach and Power

The Supreme Court justice has built a network of former clerks who share messages, meals and a common vision — wielding influence at universities, law firms and the highest rungs of government.

By Abbie VanSickle and Steve Eder

Dec. 24, 2023, 3:01 a.m. ET

In late August, amid a rising outcry over revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas had received decades of undisclosed gifts and free luxury travel, a lawyer in Chicago fired off an email to her fellow former Thomas clerks.

“Many of us have been asked recently about the justice,” wrote the lawyer, Taylor Meehan. “In response, there’s not always the opportunity to tell his story and share what it was like to work for him. And there’s rarely the opportunity for us to do so all together.”

Ms. Meehan attached a letter in support of Justice Thomas. Minutes later came a reply. “I just had to jump up right away and say bravo for this,” wrote Steven G. Bradbury, a Heritage Foundation fellow who served in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations. Within days Fox News viewers were hearing about the letter, now signed by 112 former clerks and testifying that the justice’s “integrity is unimpeachable.” Among the signers was the popular Fox host Laura Ingraham.

In turn, the justice’s wife, the conservative activist Virginia Thomas, soon took to the clerks’ private email listserv. “We feel less alone today, because of you all!!! 🙏💕💕💕” she wrote, offering special thanks to the letter’s coordinators and all “who stepped into our fire!!!”

In the 32 years since Justice Thomas came through the fire of his confirmation hearings and onto the Supreme Court, he has assembled an army of influential acolytes unlike any other — a network of like-minded former clerks who have not only rallied to his defense but carried his idiosyncratic brand of conservative legal thinking out into the nation’s law schools, top law firms, the judiciary and the highest reaches of government.

The former clerks’ public defense of the justice was “unparalleled in the history of the court,” said Todd C. Peppers, a professor of public affairs at Roanoke College and the author of “Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of the Supreme Court Law Clerk.” “It’s frankly astonishing.”

For Justice Thomas, the letter came at a time of both trial and triumph. He had become the face of long-simmering questions about the high court’s ethical guidelines. But he was also at the height of his influence. The court’s senior justice, he had spent years on the losing side of cases, writing minority opinions grounded in his strict originalist interpretations of the Constitution. Now that former President Donald J. Trump had given the court a conservative supermajority, Justice Thomas was a guiding voice for a new judicial mainstream.

He was playing a long game, and his former clerks were among its most important players. The Thomases did not respond to requests for comment, but in a 2008 interview, the justice said, “I tell my law clerks that we’re not writing current events — we’re writing for a much longer period,” adding that his opinions were based on “principles that are locked down and that will be here when the tides turn” in 50 years.

Now the tides have turned, and at least 18 of those former clerks have served as state, federal or military judges, nearly three-quarters of them appointed by Mr. Trump to federal courts, where they have ruled on issues like voting rights and access to the abortion pill. Roughly 10 more served in Mr. Trump’s administration; nearly a dozen made his Supreme Court short lists. Former Thomas clerks have arguedand won, several of the most momentous Supreme Court cases of recent years.

The network also includes a number of “adopted clerks” who never worked for Justice Thomas but are invited to events and receive clerk communications. Among them are high-profile conservatives including Leonard Leo, the judicial kingmaker of the Federalist Society, Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Alex Azar, a Trump cabinet secretary.

Supreme Court clerks are, by definition, the sort of ambitious lawyers likely to wield significant influence in their post-clerk lives. What makes Justice Thomas’s clerks so remarkable, in large part, is their success as loyal standard-bearers of his singular ideology. Indeed, an examination of what the justice and his wife call Thomas Clerk World, based on interviews with people in and around it and a review of private emails and the Thomases’ public statements, shows how meticulously the couple have cultivated the clerk network over the decades.

It is common for justices to maintain close ties with their clerks, but Stephen R. McAllister, a former clerk who served as the United States attorney for Kansas during the Trump administration, said Justice Thomas was “quite extraordinary in terms of keeping in touch with his clerks, helping clerks and having everyone be in touch with each other.”

The Thomases have tended to their network through monthly lunches at Morton’s The Steakhouse or the Capital Grille in Washington, open to any alumni who happen to be in town. They have hosted clerks and their families at ski resorts and summer retreats, complete with inside jokes stenciled on T-shirts and swag bags with Thomas-themed challenge coins, stress balls and playing cards. The justice has encouraged camaraderie through group screenings of the film version of Ayn Rand’s manifesto of individualism “The Fountainhead” and pilgrimages to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

At the heart of the organizing is Mrs. Thomas — jokingly designated “law clerk emeritus” — who manages the network’s discourse as a sort of den mother. Hers has been a particularly active role for a Supreme Court spouse — overseeing production of a directory with a page for each clerk, as well as the email listserv and a private Facebook group. All of it, she has said, is meant to build “connective tissue across and throughout this amazing community of leaders.”

Mrs. Thomas, whose right-wing political activism has included involvement in efforts to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 election defeat, has insisted that she and her husband operate in separate lanes. But some of her interactions with the clerk network show the degree to which theirs is, in fact, a shared ideological project. She cheered when Mr. Trump appointed members of the Thomas clerk roster as judges: “Thank God,” Mrs. Thomas told an interviewer, rattling off other appointments. “He used to tell them, ‘You’re going to be future leaders, it’s coming your way, you’re going to be next.’ And now they are.” Last year, she encouraged clerks to start an email thread in which participants shared articles celebrating the court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

The network has found its own ways to celebrate Justice Thomas and his legacy. In 1998, one of the justice’s clerks hunted down and presented him with a memento from one of his first Supreme Court opinions: a mounted taxidermy lobster.

When Justice Thomas speaks of his clerks, he tends to refer to them as his “kids.” As he put it in a talk a decade ago at Harvard Law School, “I really love my clerks.”

‘Trying to Train a Pig’

For many years, Supreme Court clerkships were considered largely nonpartisan. Accomplishment — top grades, law review membership, recommendations — rather than ideology was the currency required to win one of the coveted jobs. Aspirants usually worked first for a feeder judge, one of a small group of prominent federal judges with close ties to the justices and track records of sending clerks to the high court. The justices did not uniformly select from Democratic or Republican-appointed appeals court judges, and prospective clerks were expected to apply to all nine of them.

As the country has become more polarized, so, too, have the clerkship ranks. The current justices have overwhelmingly hired clerks from judges appointed by a president of the same party as the one who appointed them.

Justice Thomas has fully embraced the trend. In 2010, The New York Times noted that all 84 of his clerks had trained with Republican-appointed appeals judges, and that pattern has largely continued in recent years.

“I’m not going to hire clerks who have profound disagreements with me — that’s a waste of my time,” Justice Thomas said during an interview in Dallas in 1999. “And someone said that’s like trying to train a pig. It wastes your time and aggravates the pig.”

The justice, like his peers, typically hires four clerks per term, a process he has likened to “selecting mates” for “a foxhole.” He has often said he seeks clerks from modest backgrounds that mirror his own — who haven’t had “the skids greased for them,” aren’t “jerks” and show they have the “horse power” to work long hours. While many of his clerks come from elite law schools like Harvard, the University of Chicago and Yale, he is known for making a point of venturing beyond this pool. He has hired from George Mason University in Virginia and the University of Kansas, both public schools, and church-affiliated schools like Creighton University in Nebraska, where his wife studied law. Justice Thomas has spoken of four locker-room-style hooks on a door in his chambers with a sign reading, “Hang egos here.”

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who died in 1998, famously said the court operated “like nine separate law firms,” each its own small world with the justice at the center. Justice Thomas eagerly debates cases with his clerks. His clerks help review the thousands of petitions filed each year, summarizing the requests and making recommendations to grant or deny them, and they work with the justice on pending cases. For Supreme Court clerks, the relationships formed with justices are often described as familial, a club membership that lasts a lifetime.

The Thomas clerk network began to take shape early in the justice’s tenure on the court. Mrs. Thomas used her grass-roots-organizing skills to set up a newsletter and small discussion group for clerk spouses. The email listserv emerged out of heartbreak. In 2010, Greg Coleman, a former clerk who had served as solicitor general of Texas, was killed in a plane crash. Mrs. Thomas and Mr. Coleman’s widow, Stephanie Coleman, created the Thomas Clerk World listserv so clerks could support one another.

At the Supreme Court, Mrs. Thomas has hosted women’s events and included past female clerks on the guest list. In 2013, she invited several to a luncheon about parenting challenges, headlined by a polarizing speaker: Gayle Trotter, a self-described“liberty-loving and tyranny-hating conservative lawyer” who had just gained notoriety for her congressional testimony that “guns make women safer.”

“Congratulations for being on the IN list!” Mrs. Thomas wrote in an email.

The couple’s view of the clerks as family is on display in their glossy, photo-filled Christmas letters. The 2006 edition mentioned two gatherings of clerks, one of which celebrated Justice Thomas’s first 15 years on the court. “We LOVE this extended family,” the Thomases wrote. The 2015 letter showed the justice — in a leprechaun hat — at a Dallas gathering with his frequent benefactor, the billionaire conservative donor Harlan Crow, who had hosted “Clarence’s clerks for meetings, study and fun.” Later that year, dozens of former clerks and their families traveled to Park City, Utah, for one of the network’s retreats — multiday affairs that can include continuing-education courses taught by former clerks, sometimes with appearances by the justice.

As Justice Thomas reached his 30th anniversary on the court in 2021, the Thomases hosted a clerk retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. For one event, the clerks surprised the Thomases with a banner that read “Liberty and Justice (Thomas) for All.” So many people came to the retreat that a group photo was shot from a drone.

Seeding the Field

As a microcosm of the radiating power of the clerk network, consider the career of William Consovoy.

While studying law at George Mason in the early 2000s, Mr. Consovoy became enamored of Justice Thomas’s originalist judicial thinking — a method of interpreting the Constitution that says judges must apply the Founders’ understanding of the text. After clerking for the justice in 2008, Mr. Consovoy carried that philosophy into battle on some of the signature legal questions of the day. The law firm he helped build before his death last winter, Consovoy McCarthy, has become a boutique go-to litigator for the right.

In 2013, Mr. Consovoy was a key member of the team that successfully challenged a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, a law from the civil rights era aimed at insulating Black Americans from attempts to dilute their voting power. The 5-to-4 ruling in the case, Shelby County v. Holder— with Justice Thomas in the majority — largely gutted the legislation, clearing the way for nine states, mainly in the South, to change election laws without federal clearance. Shock waves from the case are still being felt, including in recent fights over voting maps in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. And last month, another Thomas clerk, David R. Stras, a Trump appointee to the appeals court in Minneapolis, wrote an opinion that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act. The ruling is almost certain to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Consovoy’s work also built on Justice Thomas’s harsh critique of affirmative action — that such programs stigmatized Black people while providing cover to failures to address the true needs of disadvantaged Americans and discriminated against other applicants. Mr. Consovoy worked on a case challenging race in college admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas, which began in 2008 and twice came before the Supreme Court. The case didn’t succeedin ending affirmative action, but Mr. Consovoy would join conservative groups in mounting another attack, steering two challenges — at Harvard and at the University of North Carolina — to the Supreme Court. With Mr. Consovoy battling cancer, two of his law-firm colleagues argued the cases, both former Thomas clerks. Last June, the court struck down race-based admissions policies, with Justice Thomas in the majority.

At Consovoy McCarthy, five partners are Thomas clerks. Over all, more than a third of the justice’s clerks have become law partners, many helping lead influential firms like Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

While many Thomas clerks have gone on to teach, there are clusters at two schools that are centers of conservative legal scholarship — George Mason’s Scalia Law School and Notre Dame. Justice Thomas, who has co-taught with several former clerks, has been a visiting professor at both schools.

He has filled the judiciary with his disciples, in far greater numbers than Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recent justices with a similar length of service.

After clerking for Justice Thomas, teaching at Scalia Law and serving in the Trump administration, Neomi Rao was appointed to the federal appeals court in Washington, considered a Supreme Court feeder. In 2019, she cast the lone dissenting vote on a three-judge panel that allowed congressional investigators to seek Mr. Trump’s financial records.

In the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, James C. Ho is one of the three judges who upheld part of a Texas decisionto limit access to the abortion pill mifepristone. This month, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the challenge to federal approval of the drug. That case follows on the heels of the court’s striking down Roe v. Wade — in a case argued successfully by Mississippi’s solicitor general, Scott G. Stewart, a 2015 Thomas clerk.

When the Trump administration needed conservatives to fill key positions, it pulled from the Thomas network. While they were hardly the only former Supreme Court clerks to sign on, the ideology nurtured by Justice Thomas proved a fit with the administration’s focus on executive power, skepticism of welfare and social benefits and pushback at gun regulation. A second Trump administration would probably again draw on the Thomas clerk roster.

Three Thomas clerks — Patrick F. Philbin, John Eisenberg and Kate Todd — became deputy White House counsels. Two more — Heath Tarbert and Sigal Mandelker — held high posts in the Treasury. Steven Bradbury had several jobs in the Transportation Department, including, briefly, acting secretary.

Jeffrey B. Wall, a 2004 clerk and star Supreme Court litigator while in private practice, served as principal deputy solicitor general and then acting solicitor general in the Trump administration, where he argued on behalf of the president’s travel ban and his plan to include immigration status on the 2020 Census.

In October, back in private practice, Mr. Wall argued an admiralty case that focused on a yacht that had run aground. The ethics questions surrounding Justice Thomas were in full flare.

During oral arguments, the justice jokingly asked if the yacht’s engines still worked after the accident.

Later, during his rebuttal, Mr. Wall answered: “Justice Thomas, to your central question, the boat is available for sale online if you have a half-million dollars.”

The courtroom filled with laughter.

Deploying the Network

In February 1998, Christopher Landau, a Thomas clerk in both the appeals and Supreme courts, wrote to a Virginia man named Angelo Cordova. Mr. Landau was hoping to buy a lobster.

Several years earlier, writing one of his first Supreme Court opinions in a case that dealt with the standard courts should apply when reviewing states’ criminal convictions, Justice Thomas had rejected the appeal of a man who had burglarized the Cordova family’s summer home. Among the stolen items — the crustacean in question, a lobster from the Philippines, preserved, stuffed and mounted.

The Cordovas gladly handed over the lobster, which Mr. Landau presented to Justice Thomas, to his amusement, at a clerk reunion. 

Justice Thomas has frequently said he promises his clerks that they will leave their jobs with “clean hands, clean hearts, and clean consciences.” Over the years, the clerks have not only bestowed tokens of loyalty like the lobster — several clerks also bought him batteries for his R.V. — but defended him and his legacy in trying times. When two Wall Street Journal reporters published a best seller in 1994 detailing sexual harassment allegations against the justice and the politics of his confirmation, two former clerks, Ms. Ingraham and Stephen Smith, defended him in The Washington Post. “The autumnal pounding of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has resumed,” they wrote, adding, “The maligning of him as a person has been both heart-wrenching and frustrating.”

When allegations surfaced in 2016 that Justice Thomas had groped a woman during a 1999 dinner party, his former clerk, Carrie Severino, wrote in National Review, “I look forward to the day when the Left has had enough of trying to destroy this worthy and admirable man.”

In the wake of an HBO series that year dramatizing the confirmation hearings, some members of the clerk network began working on a flattering documentary film and book project, aimed at portraying “the real Clarence Thomas,” in the words of Mark Paoletta, an adopted clerk who helped with the project.

But in recent years, fissures have formed in the network.

The conflicts came to the fore after Mrs. Thomas and John Eastman, a 1996 clerk, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. Eastman, who spoke at the rally, was a chief architect of the scheme to create slates of fake electors and pressure Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election. (Mrs. Thomas’s broader activism to overturn the election would emerge later.)

In a message to the listserv, first reported by The Washington Post, Mr. Eastman said he would continue to challenge the election, writing: “Rest assured that those of us involved in this are working diligently to ascertain the truth.”

That provoked a sharp rebuke from Mr. Smith, a law professor at Notre Dame. “If by ‘truth’ you mean what actually happened, as opposed to a false narrative, then I agree,” he wrote. Others spoke up, too.

Mrs. Thomas later apologized. Even as she bemoaned the loss of the election, she wrote, “Let’s pledge to not let politics divide THIS family, and learn to speak more gently and knowingly across the divide.”

That wasn’t the end of the discussion. After the State Bar of California announced an ethics investigation of Mr. Eastman in March 2022, Wendy Stone Long, a 1997 clerk, wrote to the Thomas network.

“Dear Clerk Family, John Eastman is being put through a sham disbarment proceeding by the bar of the state of California,” she wrote, encouraging fellow clerks to speak out on his behalf and providing a link to donate to his defense fund.

She added a postscript warning the group not to leak the email. “This family was created by Ginni and CT, and you are hurting them more than anyone if you assault the integrity and sanctity of it,” she wrote. “We can disagree over issues, but we are a family, and CT has told us to help each other and look after each other.”

Jodi Kantor contributed reporting, and Julie Tate contributed research. Produced by Jonathan Corum and Rumsey Taylor.

Abbie VanSickle covers the United States Supreme Court for The Times. She is a lawyer and has an extensive background in investigative reporting.More about Abbie VanSickle

Steve Eder has been an investigative reporter for The Times for more than a decade. More about Steve Eder

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