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Disclosures Release An Annual Reminder That Congress Can Pass Ethics Laws for SCOTUS

As a bonus, some justices appear to be going the extra mile to explain their outside income

Read the disclosures here:

Though today’s release of the justice’s annual disclosure reports leaves many unanswered questions about their lives outside the courtroom and their entanglements — e.g., why did Justices Thomas and Alito ask for filing extensions; how much did it cost to fly Justices Alito, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch and Barrett to Italy last year; and how many gifts valued at $414 and below did the nine receive? — that the reports are even filed is a crucial reminder that Congress possesses the power to set ethics policy at the Supreme Court and that the justices will abide by it.

And yet, even with the disclosures coming out, and even if from now on the nine will include their private plane flights or free resort stays (though no such gifts were listed today), the justices are still not telling the public if, for example, their spouses’ clients have cases before the Court or how many times the justices dined with politicians in a given year. And in contrast to lawmakers’ disclosure requirements, the justices do not report how much the free transportation, lodging and meals they receive cost their hosts.

But the public should know that, since there’s a big difference between the Hardee’s star and a Michelin star, between the Ritz and the Radisson.

“Given the Court’s famously bleak attitude toward transparency, maybe I should be thankful they’re filed at all?” FTC’s Gabe Roth said. “But given all we know about the conflicts the justices consistently ignore, and the perks they periodically receive, the disclosures must be more comprehensive in order to carry out the critical role they’re designed to play.”

“A single, vague line about a free trip that appears in a once-yearly report is closer to a worst practice in oversight than a best practice,” Roth added.

The seven justices reported 20 free or reimbursed trips in 2022. Both Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett (and Alito) went to Rome for conferences, Justice Gorsuch traveled to Padua to teach, and Justice Sotomayor participated in a conference in Edinburgh. In comparison, last year at this time the justices, minus Thomas and Alito, only reported eight free trips taken.

FTC has compiled a complete list of the justices’ 2022 events and appearances here.

Though a source close to Justice Thomas said in mid-April that Thomas would amend his financial disclosures to reflect a 2014 real estate deal he made with Harlan Crow, that amendment was not furnished among the disclosures released today. The Chief Justice noted in his report that his 2019-2021 disclosures were amended to reflect an equity stake his wife Jane has in her legal recruiting firm, Macrae. Those amendments have not been located as of press time, but that transparency is appreciated.

FTC last week requested all the disclosure amendments the justices have filed over the last decade. No response has been received.

The only justice to report a gift was Justice Jackson, who received three above the $415 reporting threshold: a John Steele painting (valued at $580), flowers from Oprah ($1,200) and a dress and jacket for her Vogue photoshoot ($6,580).

It is unknown how many gifts valued under $415 the justices received this year, but in years past they’ve gotten silver julep cups, personalized baseball bats and an engraving they didn’t have to report, thanks to the high threshold in the disclosure law (next year, it goes up to $480).

Spousal income:
The Chief Justice listed his wife Jane as being employed by Macrae, and Justice Kavanaugh noted his wife Ashley is still town manager of Chevy Chase Village Section 5. Unlike last year, Justice Barrett did not have the name of her husband Jesse’s law firm redacted, which makes sense, seeing as how the firm prominently features Jesse on its website. And Justice Jackson noted that her husband Patrick, consistent with an omission of error she made last year, is still receiving income from “expert witness fees.”

Writing income:
— Justice Thomas: $1,505,000 total (TBD in 2022)
— Justice Sotomayor: $3.75 million total ($149,495 in 2022, plus another $12,341 for optioning out her books)
— Justice Gorsuch: $910,000 total since joining SCOTUS ($277.57 in 2022)
— Justice Barrett: $425,000 total (none in 2022, though she’s reportedly signed a $2 million book advance)

On the positive front, Justice Sotomayor did note at the end of her report, as she sometimes has in the past, that some of her books purchased in 2022 were done so in conjunction with speaking engagements. FTC believes purchasing books in bulk for justices’ events should count as reportable gifts so is pleased with this inclusion.

It remains unknown whether Justice Thomas will, for what would be the 14th year in a row, not report royalties from My Grandfather’s Son, which appears to be selling — though it’s possible still hasn’t reached the threshold, believed to be 250,000 copies. FTC has asked his publisher, HarperCollins, about this (no answer of yet).

Rental income:
Chief Justice Roberts supplemented his $286,700 salary in 2022 by renting out his vacation homes in Maine and Ireland, and Justices Sotomayor who as associate justices made $274,200 last year, rented out her Greenwich Village apartment.

In another nod toward transparency, the mystery of how Justice Kagan could own real estate in Washington, D.C., valued at between $15,001-$50,000 was solved: per this year’s report, it’s a parking space.

Teaching income:
Though per federal law and regulations there is no limit to a justice’s book earnings or rental income, there is one for outside teaching, which in 2022 was $30,555. Justice Gorsuch earned $28,891.71 for teaching for two weeks in Padua, Italy, for George Mason’s National Security Institute. Elsewhere, Justice Kavanaugh made $29,894.96 for teaching at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, and Justice Barrett made $29,447.50 for teaching at Notre Dame.

Chief Justice Roberts sold all his shares in two of four stock holdings in 2022, shedding his Texas Instrument stock (valued between $251,000 and $500,000) and his Charter Communications stock (~$100,001-$250,000). Roberts in 2022 kept his Lam Research shares (~$100,001-$250,000) and his Thermo Fisher Scientific shares (~$500,001-$1,000,000), and he filed a transaction report in the judiciary’s online database — a requirement of the bipartisan Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act that President Biden signed last May, once again showing that Congress can pass judicial ethics laws that the justices will follow.

Though it’s unclear if Justice Alito still owns shares in a whopping 28 companies as he did in 2021, the justice did recuse from 20 petitions in 2022 due to his stock ownership. None of the other seven justices own individual stocks.

Justice Jackson, per her report, still owns two Schwab funds, which FTC believes should have compelled her to recuse in Oct. 2022 from 21-1503, Lloyds Banking Group plc, et al., v. Berkshire Bank, et al. The three other justices who own Schwab funds, Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan and Gorsuch, did, in fact, recuse.

Lower court disclosures:
With the justices’ 2022 reports now out, FTC believes the lower courts and judiciary administration should feel more than a bit embarrassed that they haven’t completed their release of the 2021 disclosures. As of yesterday, only 1,700 of an estimated 2,500 total reports (Article III plus bankruptcy and magistrate judges), or 68 percent, were posted in the online database.

The judiciary has had ample time to certify, compile and post them, and they have ample resources, as well — recall they always announce they have funds in reserve whenever the government has to shut down. FTC is considering legal remedies to compel more timely releases.

Additional resources:
— Current and previous years’ disclosures: link
— A list of the justices’ public and semi-public events since 2020: link
— A list of the justices’ free/reimbursed trips since 2004 (2004-2018 from Open Secrets; 2019-2021 from FTC): link
— The justices’ stock ownership through the years: link

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