Clarence Thomas recused himself for the first time from a January 6-related matter this week.
Thomas has faced calls to recuse himself from such matters because of his wife's involvement.
A Supreme Court expert said media scrutiny into Thomas' ethics may have convinced him to recuse.
After months of media scrutiny, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recused himself for the first time from a matter regarding the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack.
But the conservative justice's decision to withdraw his voice from the court's decision may have been an easy one due to the appeal's lacking legal merits, an expert on the Supreme Court told Insider.
As is standard among the justices, Thomas opted not to explain why he recused himself from the Monday matter, which dealt with one-time Trump attorney John Eastman's efforts to block his former employer from handing over his emails to the now-disbanded Jan. 6 Congressional committee.
Eastman, who faces criminal charges in Georgia in connection to efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, previously served as a law clerk for Thomas.
Thomas has previously faced calls to recuse himself from matters before the court concerning the January 6 attack and 2020 presidential election after his wife, Virginia "Ginny" Thomas, supported Trump's efforts to overturn the election.
Earlier this year, when the Supreme Court rejected Trump's bid to keep White House documents out of the hands of the January 6 committee, Thomas chose not to recuse himself and offered the court's lone vote in support of Trump.
The court's Monday decision comes months after a series of ProPublica reports alleged a pattern of ethical misconduct by Thomas, including accusations he accepted and failed to disclose several luxury vacations from top GOP donor Harlan Crow.
A Bloomberg law analysis from February found Thomas was the justice who recused himself the least.
His apparent about-face on Monday suggests the increased scrutiny over his ethical conduct may be having a tangible effect on his judicial career, Scott Lemieux, a professor of political science at the University of Washington and an expert in constitutional law, told Insider.
"The fact that he didn't recuse himself in previous cases involving the 2020 election makes it hard to imagine these recent stories aren't playing a role here," he told Insider.
But the Eastman appeal from which Thomas recused himself was effectively settled before the court declined to review the appeal. The Jan. 6 committee obtained the contested emails and published them last year, but Eastman had asked the Supreme Court to reject the lower court ruling that allowed the panel to access the emails and which he said harmed both his and Trump's reputations.
The Supreme Court on Monday rejected Eastman's appeal, which Lemieux suggested was "frivolous" from the start, with no additional explanation except to note Thomas' recusal.
"From his perspective, this may have been a way to address the criticism in a low-stakes, almost symbolic recusal," Lemieux said of Thomas.
Supreme Court justices are expected to recuse themselves from any matters that pose a conflict of interest.
"But the constitutional system doesn't have any way of holding justices accountable," Lemieux said, making each justice the arbiter of their own ethics.
Regardless of his reasons, Thomas ultimately did the right thing in recusing himself from the Eastman appeal, Lemieux said.
"The justices have to be convinced if they do unethical things, it will hurt the legitimacy of the Supreme Court," he said.
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