The Seediness of the Supreme Court


    A $500,000 trip to Indonesia. An all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. A $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln. These are some of the gifts that justices of the Supreme Court have knowingly accepted over the past 20 years. In the year since I reported on the Supreme Court in this publication, the sleaziness of the court has only risen to new levels, specifically the financial dealings of its justices. Confidence in the Supreme Court has dropped to historic lows, as reports by ProPublica and other publications have detailed various gifts and financial incentives that multiple justices accepted without disclosing the receipts. 

    Harlan Crow, a Republican mega-donor, made his fortune in real estate and has been friends with Justice Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas since the 1990s. While Supreme Court Justices are entitled to befriend or fraternize with members of political parties, there is a line between casual friendship and friendship that includes ethics violations. Recent reports revealed that Crow bought the house of Justice Thomas’s mother in 2014 for $133,000. When questioned about the transaction, Justice Thomas said that he “forgot” to disclose this purchase, which he is required to do with any real estate transactions over $1,000. ProPublica recently reported that the grandnephew of Justice Thomas had his $6,000 monthly boarding school tuition paid in full by Harlan Crow for two years. In addition, Justice Thomas said that he “did not understand” the requirements surrounding disclosures of transactions, which is perplexing considering he attended Yale Law School and should be well-versed in government regulation and oversight. Although news publications have been focusing heavily on Justice Thomas’s financial misdeeds, he is not the only culprit on the court.

    A weekend away at a $1,000-a-night Texas ranch. That ranch is where Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court Justice, was found dead by the owner of the property, John B. Poindexter. Poindexter invited Scalia to his ranch for an all-expenses-paid weekend. Poindexter could treat Justice Scalia to this trip without any mandatory documentation. By contrast, Congresspeople are prohibited from taking gifts for more than $50 and need pre-approval from an ethics committee before taking trips. Furthermore, unlike judges on lower courts, Justice Scalia and all other justices were under no obligation to disclose trips and complimentary gifts. From 2004 to 2014, Justice Scalia took 258 subsidized trips, more than any other justice on the Supreme Court. Every one of those trips was covered by various donors and organizations, muddying the lines of ethics and disclosure. 

    Justice Neil Gorsuch was looking for a buyer for a property he owned in Colorado. Just nine days after the Senate confirmed Justice Gorsuch to serve a lifetime term on the Supreme Court, an interested buyer materialized. This buyer was none other than the CEO of Greenberg Traurig, one of the most prominent law firms in the country, which frequently had business before the Supreme Court. Unlike his future colleague Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch did fill out a federal disclosure form for the transaction, which stated he made between $250,001 and $500,000 from the sale. However, Justice Gorsuch did not complete the form section where one would identify the purchaser. From the initial sale until now, Greenberg Traurig has presented 22 cases before the Supreme Court. Concerningly, Supreme Court rules do not bar justices from participating in monetary transactions with people with a vested interest in court decisions.

    Justices are required to make annual disclosures not only about their finances but their spouses’ finances as well and must include detail on the source of the spouse’s income, the type of income, and the date they receive the payment, but glaringly, not the amount of revenue they receive. For example, Jane Sullivan Roberts, the wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, makes six to seven figures annually working as a recruiter for some of Washington’s top law firms, many of whom have business before the court. Arguably, Ms. Roberts’s connection to the court could lead to higher commissions and greater job opportunities, but she is still a success in her own right. Furthermore, the Roberts are not required to share which law firms employ the services of Ms. Roberts, which leaves ample room for ambiguity surrounding conflict of interest, requiring the public to rely solely on the affirmations by the justices that no conflict of interest occurs. These loopholes could quickly be eliminated by comprehensive and far-reaching legislation, which all nine justices seem to oppose adopting, according to a statement released by the justices on April 25, 2023. The Supreme Court’s unanimous resistance to legislation surrounding ethics is ironic, given that most of the time, the two sides of the court are at great odds with each other. 

    It is incomprehensible that the Supreme Court is left to govern itself above any ethical or moral standard. The justices are considered the utmost experts in United States Constitutional Law, yet are they aware that their behavior could be considered a violation of due process? How can those who argue a case before the Supreme Court ensure that their legal opponent does not have an inside connection to a justice? As the law currently stands, it is nearly impossible to identify conflicts of interest concerning the justices’ and their families’ finances. It is time to pass legislation requiring more financial disclosure and explicit ethical guidelines. It is time for the Supreme Court to be brought to justice. It is time for the justices to no longer be held above the law.



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