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Justices' Disclosure Reports Highlight Antiquated Process, Conflicts of Interest

Fix the Court Calls on Judiciary to Make Reports Fully Accessible and Eliminate Securities-Based Conflicts

Supreme Court justices’ annual financial disclosure reports, released to the public today seven weeks after they were due, detail a minefield of potential conflicts of interest and ethical problems that may do untold – and unnecessary – damage to the integrity of the institution.

The reports revealed that in 2014 three justices – Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito – maintained positions in publicly traded companies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with many of these companies appearing before the high court either as litigants or as filers of amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs.

We now know that Roberts owned up to $500,000 in shares of Time Warner at the time last year when the media giant filed a pro-broadcasters brief in ABC v. Aereo, which the appellants won 6-3 last June with Roberts in the majority.

Additionally, Breyer owned up to $100,000 in IT services firm EMC Corp. and Roberts held up to $50,000 in Hewlett-Packard last year as both businesses filed briefs in favor of Teva Pharmaceuticals, which won its patent case against generic drug-maker Sandoz, 7-2, with Breyer and Roberts in the majority.

In order to minimize recusals and last-minute stock selloffs – and to ensure the justices aren’t caught in the ethical conundrum of hearing a case that features an amicus brief written by a company whose shares they ownFix the Court has called on the justices to place their securities into blind trusts, as is done by Presidents, presidential candidates and a number of congressmen.

In fact, in a first-of-its-kind report released last month, Fix the Court found that between 2009 and 2014, Roberts, Breyer and Alito has sided with companies whose stocks they own nearly 70 percent of the time those companies filed an amicus brief.

“Not only is the process by which the justices provide the public access to information about their finances antiquated, but the reports themselves outline just how far the justices have to go to achieve even a minimal level of accountability,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court. “It’s impossible to say whether justices’ stock ownership played a factor in their decisions, but we shouldn’t have to ask that question. Instead, those who own shares in individual companies should take reasonable steps, like creating blind trusts, to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Fix the Court has also called on the justices to modernize the financial disclosure process by putting the reports online, as is done by the other two branches – a reform that has the support of nearly 70 percent of Americans. Unfortunately this year, the justices, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts (AO) that receives the reports and the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure maintained the practice of releasing only paper copies of the disclosures.

In order to obtain the justices’ reports, Fix the Court downloaded and filled out a form from the AO website and faxed it in. Then, after receiving notice the reports were ready seven weeks later, as well as notice of the cost of the reports at $0.20 per page, Fix the Court staff went in person to present a $17.20 check at the AO building in Washington, D.C., at which point AO staff handed over the paper reports.

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