Newest justice feted with McConnell-hosted dinner, free hotel and flight and personalized Louisville Slugger bat
Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused to allow livestreaming or any video recording of her Sept. 12 Louisville speaking engagement hosted by the McConnell Center, according to 128 pages of documents Fix the Court received last night in response to a public records request.
Though press was invited, transparency advocates had hoped the Barrett talk would have been livestreamed, and the video saved for posterity, given that the justices are public figures whose speeches have news value and the challenges for a D.C.-based SCOTUS press corps to travel during a pandemic. The Center’s director, Gary Gregg, even called the media restrictions “draconian” in an Aug. 19 email to the Court’s public information office.
The records indicate that the Center paid for Barrett’s hotel room and flight to Louisville, and feted her with a private dinner, comprising McConnell, the school president and “guests/friends of Senator McConnell. Maybe 10-12 or so,” or “the [Minority] Leader [and] 15 or so judges and friends,” per two different email exchanges between the Center and the Court. The names of the other dinner invitees remain unknown. Barrett was gifted with a personalized Louisville Slugger bat, a common present for visitors to the Derby City.
Had FTC not submitted a records request, the earliest the public would have learned about the reimbursements and the gift would have been mid-June next year, when the release of the justices’ 2021 financial disclosures is expected, or about eight months from now.
“We had two points in mind when making this request,” said FTC’s Gabe Roth. “First, we wanted to know the newest justice’s stance toward media access for her speaking engagements, which, given the video restrictions, is not encouraging. Second, we wanted a preview of the reimbursements and gifts she received, since current ethics rules require the justices to divulge these perks only once per year in their annual disclosures, and not in a separate report filed within a month of returning from a trip like members of Congress.”
“To improve public trust in the high court, congressional travel and gift rules should apply to the justices,” Roth added.
The documents show that Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who travelled to Louisville in 2020 for an event with his former law clerk, Justin Walker, who now sits on the D.C. Circuit — was also gifted a personalized Louisville Slugger bat for his appearance. Gorsuch, according to a prior FTC records request, received julep cups and a challenge coin after his 2017 speech to the Center.
Appearing with a frequent SCOTUS litigant, titular head of a political party and current amicus notwithstanding, the Court’s PIO did work to ensure some ethical standards were maintained at the event, writing to the Center director, “As you know, due to judicial ethics rules, the Justice may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program of a fundraising event. […] Would you please confirm that nine of the events Justice Barrett will participate in during her visit are fundraisers?” A Center staffer replied: “This event will be part of our 30th anniversary celebrations, but we will not ask for donations and will not be charging attendance. So, it will be a fund-loser for us, rather than a fund raiser.”
Barrett’s speech is well-known in SCOTUS circles because the press that were in attendance reported the justice told the audience that her Court “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” That line is even more noteworthy knowing that the McConnell Center director, in an email to Barrett’s chambers on June 22, wrote, “Keep in mind our program is bi-partisan. Among the students, there will be as many leaning left as leaning right. So her remarks should keep that in mind.”
Barrett’s team also tried to minimize surprises during the event, which looks to have consisted of a 20-minute talk and a Q&A of pre-approved questions. “She does not want to field inappropriate questions in the moment,” Barrett’s assistant wrote to the Center in a June 28 email.
Barrett had initially prohibited still photographers, as well, but that changed for a reason we could not determine five days before her talk, and stills were allowed but, according to the documents, they were “limited to the first and last 1-2 minutes of the program.”
More information on media access:
Ahead of Gorsuch’s 2017 talk, there was some fairly heated back and forth between the University of Louisville press staff and the Supreme Court PIO over the justice’s decision to prohibit video recording of the event. The exasperated school media director, Mark Hebert, wrote to the SCOTUS media team weeks before Gorsuch’s talk: “We’ve never had a guest speaker at the McConnell Center ask us to bar TV and radio recordings, including Chief Justice John Roberts (2009) and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas (2000). […] We would respectfully ask Justice Gorsuch and/or your office to reconsider those restrictions.”