As long as the Supreme Court has existed, justices have run in legal circles that have discrete points of view on the law. These days, justices are often invited to give talks to lawyers’ groups that, for example, side with citizens over corporations or with civil libertarians over government entities. That, on the face, is not a violation of any ethics rules governing the judiciary. In fact, just because a group has an opinion should not prohibit it from inviting a justice to give a talk.
Problems arise when a group is doing baldly partisan activities in a justice’s presence or is raising funds from such. In 2011 Justice Thomas allegedly attended a meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., that, according to the New York Times, featured “a secretive network of Republican donors” organized by Koch Industries. It cost participants $1,500 to attend. You can see where this is going.
The meeting was billed as an opportunity to “review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it” – and that’s essentially where the reporting ended, and none of the participants in the meeting was willing to talk.
Said NYU legal ethics professor Stephen Gillers: “Because the Koch brothers are so politically active and identify with a point of view […], I would be curious to know exactly what forums the justices went to.” (So are we.)
“Obviously,” Gillers continued, “they could not go to a strategy session about how to elect more Republicans. On the other hand if it was a forum on the meaning of the First Amendment and it didn’t involve strategy, a justice could appear.”
We agree with Prof. Gillers and hope the press continues to investigate these types of events as they occur.
While the White House and many congressional offices each day release the public schedules of the President and members of Congress, respectively, the Supreme Court refrains from giving advanced notice of when a justice is appearing in public for a lecture, seminar, or other event. And sometimes, when a justice appears in public, he or she goes to great lengths to ensure a speech or panel discussion is not recorded or broadcast. Further, it’s not always clear from a justice’s annual financial disclosure report who paid for their travel to and lodging for said event.
Fix the Court is calling on the court to advise the press of the justices’ public appearances (i.e., not vacation or other personal dealings) outside of the court, allow media coverage of most of those appearances like other top government officials and be more forthcoming about their travel benefactors in their disclosure reports.