Commentary

Where is Austin Knudsen when you need him?

Montana Attorney General, a self-proclaimed judge of judges, remains mum on a true judicial scandal

April 7, 2022 4:40 am

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas while he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for 30 years. He was nominated by former President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and is the second African-American to serve on the high court, following Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Where, oh where, is Austin Knudsen when you need him?

Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, and critic of all things judicial, has been a frequent, vocal and strident purveyor of an unfounded theory that he and some members of his Republican Party are pushing that posits the judiciary is chock full of activist judges with hidden agendas, who thwart the law’s plain meaning with their liberal sophistry and elitist interpretation.

You may recall that our state attorney general is spending a lot of time signing on to political lawsuits in other states and writing snotty letters to the state Supreme Court telling them that he’s not subject to their little rulings.

Yet, even after the state’s highest court, the Montana Supreme Court, slapped his legal nonsense back, saying that it not only had the right but the legal obligation to consider whether the Legislature had overreached its authority, he was so insolent that he refused to give back email his office helped take without proper authority, and then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where despite passionately purple prose, the conservative court dismissed his petition without comment.

That has not stopped either Knudsen or his Republican colleagues from a campaign to discredit and undermine the judiciary. One might see it as a particularly cynical long-game to weaken the judiciary in order to let a political party that has turned into a sort of teenaged-fan club for despots perform the same kind of acts of bullying with far less legal pushback. You know, neuter the judges and the courts, and lawmakers will have a much easier time getting their agenda accomplished without all those pesky laws and rights.

However, in their campaign filled with crocodile tears about the integrity of judiciary, Knudsen and others seem too choked up to comment on what seems like a far more likely and convincing case of judicial abuse, Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas.

The Washington Post reported the bombshell story that Ginni Thomas had sent more than 20 frantic text messages to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, including urging the administration to declare the election of Joe Biden “the greatest Heist of our history.” Meanwhile, Justice Thomas was the only member of the court siding with former President Donald Trump to keep documents and text messages from the White House private.

Because U.S. Supreme Court justices famously do not have their own set of ethics, nor can they necessarily be compelled to answer any question, we’re left only to speculate about the extent to which Thomas knew. But given that Ginni and Clarence’s politics seem well-matched and that they’re married, it’s hard to believe the Justice didn’t know what his wife was doing. And it’s hard not to believe that the one ol’ dissenting vote on the Supreme Court was done as a means of either self- or spouse-protection.

And so this months’ long crusade to investigate and possibly root out bias in the Montana judiciary, led by a Special Select Committee comprised largely of Republicans who are clutching their collective pearls at the thought of judges having the audacity to have an opinion about how courts in Montana should run, seem suddenly silent when it comes to the matter of a Supreme Court justice who would seem to vote to keep his wife’s texts secret. Knudsen, who has been sprinkling the federal courts throughout the nation with his signature on lawsuits that challenge the Biden administration at every turn, is equally silent on the Thomas matter.

At the very minimum, it is fair to think that Thomas should have at least recused himself. It may be a fair point to debate whether such a move, especially absent any binding code of ethics, should end his career on the nation’s highest and most prestigious bench. And, it’s hardly a new discussion to ponder whether Justice Clarence Thomas belonged there in the first place – that has been discussed for decades.

Yet, if Thomas didn’t even show enough impartiality to simply recuse himself because of the conflict, realizing that his wife’s political activism had the potential to impeach or discredit his position, then it’s fair to question his judgment in other matters. This debate, on one hand, may seem petty – they were, after all, text messages of a bunch bumbling politicians during a failed coup. But just because the coup failed with a fizzle doesn’t mean there should be no consequences. Bank robbers aren’t punished only when they get away with money bags.

Instead, Thomas’ judgment has been compromised. And not just his judgment about all things related to Trump or the Jan. 6 insurrection. If he can’t see the clear, personal conflict apparent in this legal fight, how can he reasonably be expected to comprehend cases with more nuance?

And if our own attorney general in Montana really cared as much as he feigns when it comes to rooting out bias in the judiciary, then he should recognize the clear conflict here and go after it with just as much zeal.

But he’s not.

Instead, Knudsen decided to weigh in on the Supreme Court, most recently singling out Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is Biden’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

“Based on her record, Judge Jackson’s elevation to the Supreme Court would harm that institution, as well as children’s public safety nationwide. The United States Senate should do its job and protect the American people from this dangerous nominee,” Knudsen wrote.

It’s amazing that a man who believes that sentencing in three particular cases (out of hundreds, if not thousands) should be called “dangerous,” yet a man who would use his own power to protect his wife and the possible illegal actions of a U.S. president gets a silent pass.

Maybe it’s not the judiciary we should be afraid of.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

MORE FROM AUTHOR