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US Supreme Court Justices Financial Disclosure Reports Under the Microscope

Given that basic transparency measures are anathema to the Supreme Court and its justices, we must use every available tool to ensure the nine are not flouting ethical standards.

Documents Received Via Records Requests Show Public Schools Lavishing Supreme Court Justices with Fancy Travel, Hotels, Gifts

A private jet flight for Thomas, silver cups for Gorsuch, a seat in the Chancellor’s Box for Kagan

March 24, 2020

Supreme Court justices are accepting expensive perks from public colleges and universities when they visit yet often shield these appearances from the larger public by limiting who can attend their events and even leaving the trips off their annual disclosures, according to a report released today by Fix the Court.

Though the justices and their staffs are not subject to federal freedom of information laws, they often interact with officials at public schools bound by state records laws. Since October, FTC has sent 21 records requests to 19 such institutions about justices’ visits and has in return received 13 batches of documents comprising 3,973 pages. The records underscore that the justices are eager to speak and teach beyond the elite private universities they attended but also reveal the exorbitant transportation, hotel and security costs paid by the schools and the strict policies sought by court staff to manage the content and audience for the events. You can read the report here.

“Given that basic transparency measures are anathema to the Supreme Court and its justices, we must use every available tool to ensure the nine are not flouting ethical standards,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said. “At minimum, we’d know much more about justices’ transportation and lodging costs and the types of gifts they’re receiving if they adhered to the reporting rules followed by members of Congress and top executive branch staff. Until they do, or until Congress makes them, we’ll keep digging.”

To start, we found two examples of justices failing to include reimbursements in their annual disclosures. It’s fairly clear that Justice Sotomayor’s $1,045 flight to Rhode Island in 2016 – she was URI’s commencement speaker – and the block of up to 11 rooms reserved for her, her friends and her security detail at one of the state’s nicest hotels were paid by the university. And yet, Sotomayor did not list the trip on her 2016 disclosure. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, included the income he made teaching at the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia Schools of Law in his 2018 disclosure but did not mention in the report’s “reimbursement” section if either school paid for his transportation, food and lodging while in Lawrence or Athens.

After FTC brought these presumed oversights to the attention of the Supreme Court press office last week, the PIO on March 23 acknowledged the errors, saying, “Justice Thomas and Justice Sotomayor will amend their Financial Disclosure Reports to include the reimbursements that had been omitted from the prior reports.”

Beyond the issues raised by omissions, some of the exorbitant transportation, hotel and security fees we uncovered made us wonder just how valuable some schools view the justices’ visits – especially considering that these costly events can’t technically be fundraisers (though that’s a proscription we’re not convinced all the justices are following).

For example, flight costs, when provided, ranged from $694 for Chief Justice Roberts’ first-class roundtrip ticket from D.C. to Minneapolis in 2018 to an estimated $3,800 for Thomas’ seat on private plane, roundtrip, from Dulles Airport to Gainesville, Fla., in 2016. Hotel costs ranged from $141.99 for a night in Arlington, Tex., in 2016 for Justice Breyer to as much as $9,000-plus for Sotomayor’s block (this times 11) of Atlantic-view rooms in Narraganset, R.I., for three nights over graduation weekend. Several schools hired local police officers by the dozen or private security to help protect the justices – and that was on top of Marshals fees, paid by U.S. taxpayers, that, according to a separate FTC FOIA request, at times reached five figures.

Almost all the justices received gifts from the schools they visited, though none of the gifts appeared on the justices’ disclosure reports. That may be because none cost more than the federally mandated reporting floor ($390), but the value of most of the presents – save the $200 Betsy Ross flag blanket Roberts got from Minnesota Law and the thank-you notes Breyer received from CUNY – was impossible to track. Gifts like julep cups and challenge coins for Gorsuch, football gear and a seat in the Camp Randall Chancellor’s Box for Kagan and something in need of “engraving” for Sotomayor could conceivably land on either side of the threshold.

“Much of what we uncovered would be divulged under the disclosure rules for most state and federal officials, which the federal judiciary has avoided to this point,” Roth added. “Instead, we’re left wondering how often the justices are behaving unethically.”

Lastly, it was surprising to see how far some justices’ staffs went to try to manage who saw their bosses’ appearances, especially since they typically occurred in front of several hundred laptop and smartphone-owning law students.

Justices Alito and Gorsuch made it clear that they would not allow broadcast media or anyone else to record their South Carolina and Kentucky speeches, respectively, and Alito’s staff even demanded that the justice’s remarks not be live-tweeted by the university.

Kagan’s staff screened questions from UCLA Law, striking inquiries on whether Gorsuch’s “arrival change[d] anything about the Court’s dynamics,” whether high court nominations will always be partisan from now on and her views on the movie “Black Panther.”

The Supreme Court press office changed the theme of Roberts’ Minnesota Law event from how he handled “the recent term with only eight Justices, the diversity (or lack thereof) in the Justices on the Court, and the collegiality of the Justices” (the suggestion of Minnesota staff) to “the role of the Chief Justice of the United States.”


Additional background

Last October, FTC was contacted by a political reporter who received documents from a Sotomayor visit to a public New York university that suggested Supreme Court staff seemed to be acting more as travel agent than as public servant.

After learning soon after that Ginsburg accepted the 2019 Berggruen Prize and the $1 million that comes with it, we became concerned that the nine might not be upholding basic gift and reimbursement guidelines. (Ginsburg donated the funds, but ethical questions were raised by her mere acceptance of the large award.)

So we began to ask public schools for documents.

Our findings do not suggest that the need for ethics reform and increased transparency at SCOTUS are in any way diminished. Even if nothing in our report expressly violates federal law, an ethics code or gift and travel guidelines akin to those set out in the Judicial Travel Accountability Act could set the record straight and alleviate the suspicion currently cast on the justices and their actions.

Finally, we’re pleased that the justices are making an effort to visit public colleges and universities. Of the justices’ 238 visits to secondary institutions from the start of OT15 through today now listed by SCOTUSMap, which tracks the justices’ events outside the Supreme Court, 77 of those, or 32%, were to public schools. That may not seem like a lot, but only 21% of the top 14 law schools are public.

Throughout the report, we hyperlinked to screenshots. We did this for ease of reading but realize this may not be enough for some who want to see a section in its entirety.

All the documents we received are here; at any time, you may e-mail, and we will identify the exact page where the excerpt appears.

2 SCOTUS justices agree to amend financial disclosures after Fix the Court asks questions

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor agreed to amend their financial disclosure forms after the court transparency group Fix the Court raised questions about their apparent failure to list some reimbursements for a few their trips.

The trips were made to public colleges and universities for appearances or teaching. Fix the Court obtained specifics after sending records requests to 19 public colleges and universities where Supreme Court justices taught or appeared. Thirteen provided documents for an affordable fee.

The university records showed that justices were accepting “expensive perks” when they appeared at universities in the form of transportation, hotel and security costs, according to the nonpartisan group. Fix the Court summarized the findings in a March 24 press release and more detailed report published the same day.

The justices themselves are not subject to freedom of information laws, although they file financial disclosure forms listing reimbursed trips costing more than $390. Specific dollar amounts are not required.

Justices would have to reveal more specifics with passage of the Judicial Travel Accountability Act, a bill introduced in October 2019 that has Fix the Court’s backing.

“Our findings underscore the court’s need for ethics reform and increased transparency,” Fix the Court said in its report. “The creation of a Supreme Court Code of Conduct or gift and travel guidelines akin to those set out in the bipartisan Judicial Travel Accountability Act could set the record straight and alleviate any appearances of impropriety.”

As for Sotomayor, the group said it was “fairly clear” that the University of Rhode Island paid more than $1,000 for the justice’s round-trip flight for a commencement speech in 2016 and for a block of rooms in her name that were mostly booked for security staffers. But the reimbursement was not listed on disclosure forms.

As for Thomas, the justice included on his disclosures the income he made teaching in 2018 at the law schools of the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia, but he did not report whether the schools paid for his transportation, food and lodging.

In addition, the report said, the University of Florida Levin College of Law offered a private plane to Thomas, although it’s not entirely clear that he accepted the offer.

The report also said Justice Stephen G. Breyer apparently attended a $500-per-plate dinner before he appeared at the University of Texas in December 2016. University staff assured a Breyer assistant that the price merely recovered costs of the event. But, according to Fix the Court, the high price “would suggest the event was a fundraiser, which federal judges and justices are prohibited from attending.”

Supreme Court Public Information Officer Kathleen Arberg told Fix the Court that Sotomayor and Thomas will amend their financial disclosure reports to include omitted reimbursements.

She did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s request for comment about possible use of the private plane and the costly dinner.

US Supreme Court Justices Financial Disclosure Reports Under the Microscope
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