Recently, there’s been a petition circulating in the publishing world calling on Penguin Random House to withdraw its plans to publish a book next year by Justice Barrett and scrap her $2 million advance.
This is silly.
We say that Justice Barrett has every right to cash in on her fame — so long as she recuses from future PRH cases that reach SCOTUS (there’s a major PRH case in S.D.N.Y. that seems headed that way) and doesn’t flout judicial ethics obligations in the text of her book (we wouldn’t expert her to).
Under federal law, she has the same book publishing rights as any member of Congress, executive branch official or person running for president. And PRH has every right to be the publisher, believing that it too will benefit financially from the arrangement.
The truth is that this is not all that different from athletes signing big contracts after their best seasons or actors appearing in a ton of commercials after they’ve starred in the latest box office hit. Barrett was called up to the majors and wants to write about it — and there’s an audience for that.
Some ethicists will disagree and say that justices’ royalties and advances should be capped, much as their outside teaching earnings are capped (at around $30,000 per year). We don’t find arguments on that point convincing. After all, justices earn, what, one-tenth of what they could make in the private sector? If they have a compelling story to tell that a third party wants to purchase, and that doesn’t interfere with their SCOTUS work, good on them.
What’s more, there’s precedent for this. Justices Thomas and Sotomayor have between them made around $5 million on their book deals since joining SCOTUS. And we expect Justice Gorsuch to join the seven-figure club soon (he’s earned about $700,000 from book advances and royalties since his 2017 elevation).
It’s fine to disagree with a justice’s opinions on and off the court. But trying to scrap a book contract is the wrong place for your SCOTUS angst.