Dear Justice Thomas, I'm afraid you might be disproving the saying that "there is no such thing as bad publicity." Let's face it, Mr. Justice, there is such a thing, and wow have you been getting a lot of it.
First, you made headlines for attending events sponsored by conservative groups on the Federalist Society's dime. Years later your vote in the now (in)famous Citizens United case made it easier for many of those groups to spend money freely in political campaigns. (Justice Antonin Scalia attended a similar meeting years before the decision as well). While it is not yet clear that you had a conflict of interest or that you should have recused yourself when you voted in Citizens United, it is beyond dispute that a great deal of ink (in the physical and electronic form) has been spilled discussing the propriety of your trip.
Second, there was the issue of neglecting to disclose your spouse's salary for six years. That Mrs. Thomas' income primarily came from two conservative organizations, the Heritage Foundation and Liberty Central, didn't help matters much. Not that you asked me, but I'm not sure that the problem is that Mrs. Thomas strongly supports, and makes a lot of money from, conservative organizations. (Did any of us every think that she was liberal?) My concern is that for more than half a decade you read a routine disclosure form and failed to properly complete it. There is a strong public interest in obtaining the information on those forms. That is why we have them in the first place.
Now having said all that, congratulations Mr. Justice. At least you're out there!
Is there anything good that can come of your name splashing across the news? Yes!
First, I think a lot more people will be answering "yes" when asked, "can you name a Supreme Court justice?" Okay, okay, that probably isn't a huge benefit, so let's keep moving.
Second, we're having a national debate concerning the Supreme Court. Now I know what you're saying, "we're debating whether one of the justice's conduct is ethical, how can that be positive?"
Well, guess what? Supreme Court justices are human. There, I said it. They have lifetime appointments for a reason, to allow them to be above the political fray. Supreme Court justices (and all federal judges) have their jobs until they die so that if need be they can make wise, but unpopular decisions, and so that they can (though of course they don't always do this), protect the rights of the minority against tyranny by the majority. It is no accident that they are the only unelected branch.
Supreme Court members do not have lifetime appointments so that we can pretend they are superhuman or disengaged in public and political life. The decisions of the nine most powerful members of the judiciary have real world consequences, and I would also like them to have real world experiences.
Also, Justices Thomas and Scalia are not alone. In 2008, Justice Stephen Breyer went to Vienna for the World Justice Forum. This trip was sponsored by the American Bar Association, a group many conservatives view as liberal. A year later, in 2009, just prior to her Supreme Court nomination, then-federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor traveled to Puerto Rico, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union.
So let's not ask or expect justices to take a vow of isolation when they take a seat on the highest court in the land. In fact, let's ask them to make sure they talk to people outside of those vaulted walls. (I only wish that justices spoke to those on both sides of the aisle, with a diversity of viewpoints). And let's ask one other thing -- for many of those discussions to be disclosed and/or open to the public. Information is power, both for the public and the justices.