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What's the Cost to Book a SCOTUS Justice?

Justice Ginsburg will be accepting a $1 million prize from the Berggruen Institute at a private event today in New York. Though she said she will be turning around and donating the money, the question remains as to whether it is appropriate to accept a financial benefit of this magnitude, even nominally, in the first place.

Recall that last year Ginsburg almost got another mil but instead was awarded the Genesis Lifetime Award (no monetary prize) instead of the Genesis Prize ($1 million prize).

Honoraria over $2,000 are prohibited by Judicial Conference regulations (§1020.30). Although these regulations do not cover the Supreme Court, SCOTUS has taken action to conform with this guidance.

Two years after the 1989 Ethics Reform Act was passed, Chief Justice Rehnquist drafted a resolution stating that the nine justices would follow the gift prohibitions included in it. This resolution has not been since disavowed by the court, though a recent attempt to verify if it still applied went unanswered.

SCOTUS justices have accepted honoraria in 2012 and in 2018 (which were subsequently donated), though each was for exactly $2,000, which suggests the regulations remain in effect.

Prof. Steven Lubet of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law recently outlined three reasons why Justice Ginsburg is ultimately not violating any ethical obligations by accepting this prize. They are that the Supreme Court has never adopted an ethics code, that SCOTUS was specifically exempted from the Ethics in Government Act, and that Rehnquist’s 1991 resolution was issued by “the members of the court” rather than the court itself. (Ginsburg became a justice in 1993.)

Bottom line: it shouldn’t take a Socratic essay from a leading legal ethicist to determine whether one of the nine members of the most powerful, least accountable part of our government is living up to her ethical obligations.

Finally, if this is a new way fancy institutes are going to try to get good PR, or ensure that a Supreme Court justice attends their annual event, please stop.

UPDATE: Upon accepting the award, Ginsburg said: “As a government officer, I can’t accept money for myself, but this was an opportunity to give money to many good causes.” It was reported in Vanity Fair that she will be donating the prize money to the Malala Fund, the American Bar Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Metropolitan Opera, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Smile Train.

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