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New SCOTUS Disclosures Show 2023 Was a Good Year for Several Justice-Authors' Bank Accounts

Is SCOTUS internalizing the lessons on ethics? Maybe.

Four Supreme Court justices supplemented their income with payments from their book deals, three accepted money for teaching, and only two accepted any reportable gifts in 2023, according to financial disclosures released Friday. Justice Alito was the only sitting justice to request an extension.

Read the disclosures here.

These disclosures are the first to be released since the Court announced its adoption of a Code of Conduct (Nov. 2023) and the first since the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation from ProPublica was published (Apr. 2023&ff). Given the wide array of data in the reports, it’s difficult to ascertain whether recent ethics scandals have changed the justices’ behavior. In fact, there are some conflicting signs.

According to Thomas’ disclosure, he did not accept any gifts of private plane travel or resort stays from Harlan Crow or any of his other prior benefactors in 2023. The only gift he accepted was $2,000 in “photo albums” from the outgoing executive director of the Horatio Alger Association, Terry Giroux, and Giroux’s wife, Barbara. (Justice Jackson’s gifts are noted later in the release.)

What’s more, Thomas wrote at the end of his report that his 2019 FDR “is hereby amended to include the following entries under the reimbursement section, which was inadvertently omitted at the time of filing,” and he lists a one-night stay at a hotel, with free food, in Bali and a four-day, three-night stay at Bohemian Grove (though he doesn’t write “Bohemian Grove”).

On the one hand, amendments like these show growth and are appreciated. On the other hand, ProPublica reported that Thomas flew to Indonesia on a private plane for his summer jaunt, and from this omission in the appendix, it appears that either Thomas made another error or he believes neither travel on a private plane owned by a friend (though it’s really owned by his friend’s company, HRZNAR, LLC) nor overnight stays on a yacht owned by a friend (really Crow Holdings, LLC) to be reportable.

Under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act and the 2023 Judicial Conference clarification, both are.

In terms of outside income, another closely watched category from which ethics hackles might be gleaned, albeit not from Fix the Court, Justice Jackson led the way with a book advance of $893,750 for her memoir coming out in September; Justice Kavanaugh took in $340,000 for a book due out in 2025 or 2026; Justice Gorsuch earned $250,000 for his book out Aug. 6; and Justice Sotomayor earned $86,784.22 for royalties on her various works (plus another $1,879.16 for voicing a character on PBS’s “Alma’s Way”).

“Each justice would be capable of earning 10 times their current salary in the private sector, so it’s reasonable for them to want to boost their income as authors, especially those with inspiring life stories,” Fix the Court’s Gabe Roth said. “This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t see anything ethically compromising about it so long as the justices don’t use their offices to hawk books, they speak to ideologically diverse audiences on their book tours, and they recuse from petitions involving their publishers.”

Also of note on extra income, Sotomayor’s disclosure states she purchased property in Margate, Fla., in 2023 worth up to $250,000 and is renting both that and her Manhattan condo out, which earned her up to $30,000 last year. Roberts, Thomas and Kagan all made extra money as landlords, albeit in completely different circumstances: Roberts owns 1/8 of a property in Ireland with members of his family; Thomas’ wife, Ginni, has a stake in a Nebraska real estate company (worth a ton); and Kagan owns a parking spot in her D.C. condo building.

Elsewhere, Gorsuch earned $29,798.20 from teaching in Portugal for George Mason, and Kavanaugh and Barrett earned $25,000 and $14,947, respectively, for teaching Notre Dame Law courses in the U.K.

Trying to be sanguine for a moment, beyond the fact that only two justices accepted reportable gifts, it appears some justices might be paying their own way for certain trips: neither Kagan’s to San Diego to christen a ship nor Jackson’s to South Florida for a street dedication appeared in the reports. Neither, for that matter, did Kagan’s tennis tournament ticket.

Also not in the reports, since they don’t have to be: all the times the justices spoke to judicial conferences — in Ottawa, New Mexico, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio and Minnesota. If that’s the prevailing way the justices are seeing the continent these days, as compared to partisan junkets or benefactor-paid vacations, one might consider that a welcome trend.

Or one might weigh all of this evidence and say the jury’s still out on whether any lessons are being internalized.

Another positive: Barrett appears to have declined the $5,000 honorarium that typically comes with the honor of giving the Stein Lecture at Minnesota Law. Any gift acceptance there is unknown, since the 2018 Stein Lecturer, Chief Justice Roberts, received two gifts (a $214 blanket and $28 gift basket) far under the reporting threshold, which in 2018 was $390 and in 2023 was $480. (It changes with inflation.) Roberts also received the Henry Friendly medal last year (really a plaque), which from a video appears to be worth less than $480, maybe a couple hundred dollars.

Even so, Fix the Court maintains that the justices should not be in the practice of accepting any gifts, save those of nominal value.

“Next time, Justice Thomas should pay for his own photo albums, and Justice Jackson should pay for her own Beyonce tickets,” Roth added.

FTC believes the justices should not own individual stock, and yet Roberts still owns shares in two companies, even as he’s missed recusals due to his securities in the past.

When Justice Alito’s disclosure comes out this summer, FTC will be looking to see if he received free travel to New York to speak to the Wall Street Journal editorial board, how many stocks he owns and if he traveled abroad at all, among other items.

Finally, FTC released a database of the gifts the justices have received over the years yesterday — 344 gifts valued at $2,993,036 since 2004 — and today will be updating it to 350 gifts (Thomas’ hotel in Bali and food in Bali [already had Bohemian Grove]; and Jackson’s photo album, Beyonce tickets and two pieces of art) valued at 3,012,248. (See a list of all the gifts here.)

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