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Supreme Court Should Use Increased FY16 Funding to Improve Transparency and Public Access

For just $86,707.37, high court could get conflict-check system, blind trusts, online disclosures, same-day audio

With the U.S. Supreme Court receiving $871,000 more in its FY16 budget for salaries and expenses than it did in FY15, Fix the Court is urging the justices to use part of its additional funding to invest in projects that would increase transparency at and public access to the high court.

Fix the Court estimates that for about one-tenth of its budget increase, or $86,707.37, the high court could implement a software-based conflict-check system, create blind trusts for the three justices with stock ownership, place all nine justices’ annual financial disclosures online and upload audio files of oral arguments to the same day a case is heard.

“It turns out that improving access and accountability at the high court is not only a worthy goal for a modern democracy, it is also a reasonable, cost-effective way to spend the justices’ increased appropriation,” Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth said. “The Supreme Court will receive nearly $76 million from taxpayers next year for salaries and expenses, and in return – for barely one-tenth of one percent of that total – the public should be granted greater insight into the way the most powerful, least accountable government institution operates.”

Here are suggestions from Fix the Court, along with cost estimates:

  • Creating a software-based conflict-check system: $50,000

After it was revealed that Justice Breyer heard a case in October in which he had a financial interest, we were reminded that the Supreme Court’s conflict-checking process “is an internal one carried out by the individual chambers [that] does not include use of software.” This method was once again shown to be inadequate last week when Fix the Court revealed that Chief Justice Roberts failed to step aside from cert. determination in companion environment cleanup cases in which a company whose stock he owns was a litigant.

In order to improve the process, Fix the Court proposes creating a software-based conflict-check program, akin to the uClaim/iCheck software created last year by computer scientists that automates some of the fact-checking done by news outlets. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach the uClaim team by press time, but since its software is essentially a small-scale app, we estimate the cost to be $50,000 to create it and to teach the justices’ law clerks how to use it to check for investment-, family- and prior work-based conflicts.

  • Setting up blind trusts for the justices with stock holdings: $36,600

Only Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Alito own individual shares of publicly traded companies, while the other six have invested in a mix of retirement funds, bonds and money market accounts. In order to tamp down on the conflicts mentioned above, Fix the Court has called on the stock-owning three to place their securities into blind trusts.

To do so, we recommend the justices contact a top political regulation attorney, such as one from Skadden Arps, who has experience helping public figures set up blind trusts. Based on court documents related to Skadden’s attorneys’ fees, we estimate his hourly rate at $1,220, and based on the size and number of their investments, we estimate it would take about 10 hours per justice to create the trusts, for a total cost of $36,600.

  • Posting the justices’ annual financial disclosures online: $57.29-$107.37

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts handles the distribution, currently on paper, of the justices’ disclosures. For AO staff to upload the reports to, it would take about an hour and a half:

–       30 minutes to walk round-trip from the AO to the Supreme Court to pick up the reports

–       15 minutes to scan the reports (assuming 10 seconds to scan a page, and the justices’ nine disclosures are a total of 88 pages, as they were in 2014)

–       45 minutes to place the documents on a standalone webpage (that’s how long it took Fix the Court here)

According to the salary range of an AO IT specialist, the person doing the uploading would be paid between $38.19 and $71.53 per hour, or between $57.29 and $107.37 for an hour and a half or work, for which the Supreme Court could reimburse the AO.

  • Uploading same-day audio for all oral arguments: Free

The court records the audio of all of its hearings and places the audio files online at the end of each week. For more than a dozen high profile cases, though, the court since 2000 has released same-day audio. Mostrecently, on the afternoon of Oct. 5, the court accidentally uploaded the audio file from the first argument of the term, that morning’s OBB Personenverkehr AG v. Sachs.

Since uploading audio files is work that is already done at the high court – we’d prefer it be done day-of and not on Fridays – there would be no cost associated with this fix.

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