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The next Clarence Thomas? Abortion pill case spotlights rightwing judge and his wife’s shadowy connections

The next Clarence Thomas? Abortion pill case spotlights rightwing judge and his wife’s shadowy connections
When the former president Donald Trump appointed the Texas attorney James Ho to the fifth circuit court of appeals in 2017, lawyers at the prominent law firm Gibson Dunn – where Ho worked before his appointment – had a problem: how to replace the politically connected Ho. Turns out, they didn’t even need to change the home address for his replacement. Ho’s wife, Allyson, moved into her husband’s position and his old office.

Meet the Hos.

Related: What is the abortion case in front of the US supreme court right now?

Few people outside of legal circles have heard of the Hos, yet the couple is tied to the case before the US supreme court that will determine women’s access to mifepristone, a drug commonly used in medication abortions. The court hears arguments in the case on Tuesday.

Ho served on the three-judge panel last summer that ruled to restrict access to mifepristone. The legal group behind the mifepristone case, Alliance Defending Freedom, made at least six payments from 2018 through 2022 to his wife, Allyson, a powerhouse federal appellate lawyer who has argued in front of the supreme court and has deep connections to the conservative legal movement that has led the attack on the right to abortion in the US.

The payments don’t violate the court’s code of conduct, according to Stephen Gillers, a New York University emeritus professor of law and author of Regulation of Lawyers: Problems of Law and Ethics. But some court watchers argue that Ho’s failure to recuse himself from the case illustrates why public trust in the judiciary is eroding. One recent survey found that 63% of judges noted a dip in the public’s positive perception of them.

“When Americans see a case like this – so clearly concocted and motivated by special interests, and with evident connections between those interests and the judges on the case, it does tremendous damage to the reputation of the courts, and to the public trust in their ability to give all litigants an even shake,” said Alex Aronson, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Court Accountability and a former chief counsel to the Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

In an email to the Guardian, James Ho wrote that he “consulted our court’s ethics advisor prior to sitting in that case, and was advised that there was no basis for recusal. In any event, my wife’s practice is to donate honoraria to charity.”

The Hos are just one of the increasing number of power couples in the conservative movement in which the wife of a prominent official works in the background, laying the groundwork for Republican policies that their spouses will rule upon or legislate. In the mifepristone case, the wife of the Missouri senator Josh Hawley, Erin, is the attorney of record for Alliance Defending Freedom and argued the case before Ho. The supreme court justice Clarence Thomas rankled the legal world when he refused to recuse himself from a case involving questions about the January 6 insurrection and the “Stop The Steal” campaign to which his wife, Ginni Thomas, was closely tied.

For Aronson, these are examples of “serious concerns about what is becoming an apparent pattern of coordinated activity by some of these couples in this extremist movement, including the Thomases, Hawleys and Hos”.

Ho’s rulings have included zealous language, referencing what he called in one decision “the moral tragedy of abortion”. He has suggested that protection orders in domestic violence cases “are too often misused as a tactical device in divorce proceedings – and issued without any actual threat of danger”. Orin Kerr, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor, tweeted that one of Ho’s opinions “reads like a politician’s op-ed, not a legal opinion; judges should stick to law”.

Related: What Alabama’s IVF ruling reveals about the ascendant Christian nationalist movement

In the mifepristone case, in which Ho supported rolling back decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration to loosen restrictions on the drug, he wrote: “Unborn babies are a source of profound joy for those who view them. Expectant parents eagerly share ultrasound photos with loved ones. Friends and family cheer at the sight of an unborn child. Doctors delight in working with their unborn patients – and experience an aesthetic injury when they are aborted.”

He has chafed legal traditionalists from the moment of his swearing-in, when he opted for the ceremony to be held in the private library of Harlan Crow – the conservative mega-donor who, ProPublica revealed, has lavished Clarence Thomas with trips on his yacht and paid the $6,000-per-month private school tuition for the justice’s great-nephew. Ho worked as a clerk for Thomas in 2005.

Ho vowed to boycott hiring Yale Law School graduates as clerks after students interrupted conservative speakers on campus, noting “cancellations and disruptions seem to occur with special frequency” at the Ivy League school.

His caustic writings have drawn the spotlight while his wife, Allyson, has been working more inconspicuously, helping lay the legal foundation for conservative policies in her own work.

She appears frequently as a speaker for the Federalist Society, the group that has led the conservative effort to reshape the judiciary. She has also worked pro bono for the Christian right organization First Liberty Institute, a group that describes its mission “to defend and restore religious liberty in our schools, for our churches and houses of worship, inside the military, and throughout the public arena”.

It’s unclear what Alliance Defending Freedom paid Allyson Ho to do, yet ending abortion is central among the organization’s goals. The group helped write the Mississippi law that led to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade and ended the 50-year-old constitutional right to an abortion.

Her husband’s financial disclosures list descriptions of “Academy” or “Freedom Summit”, next to some of the payments. The ADF hosts various legal trainings as part of its ADF Legal Academy that “seamlessly combines outstanding legal training with an unwavering commitment to Christian principles” and a Young Lawyers Academy.

The Alliance Defending Freedom did not respond to the Guardian’s queries and a request to speak with Allyson Ho sent to Gibson Dunn has not been answered.

The Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Republicans, appointed Allyson to the state’s committee responsible for recommending and vetting its recommendations to fill judicial vacancies. Neither Cruz nor Cornyn’s offices responded to the Guardian’s request for the names or dates of service for the judicial vetting committee nor did they respond to questions about what role, if any, Allyson had in her husband’s nomination to the bench.

Related: ‘They hate God’: US anti-abortion activists aim to fight back on 51st Roe anniversary

In 2023, the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, hired Allyson and Gibson Dunn, at a rate of $1,313 per hour – with a $7m cap – to represent the state in a decade-long legal battle in which a federal judge determined Texas had failed to protect foster children. The state had previously been represented by attorneys on its own payroll. The move to hire Allyson and her firm signaled that Texas could be looking to fight back against court orders mandating Texas comply with federal monitors appointed to ensure the safety of vulnerable children in its care by appealing district court rulings to the fifth circuit court of appeals – the court on which James Ho serves.

The mifepristone case might just be the beginning of the Hos’ influence, Gillers, the NYU professor, said.

“If Trump wins the election, you’ll see Ho on the short list of nominees to the supreme court,” he said. “He is obviously behaving in a way that makes him a very prominent candidate in a Republican administration.”

That appointment could once again leave an empty office – one that some might want Allyson to fill.

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