What Ethical Controversies Are US Supreme Court Justices Facing?


All-expenses-paid trips, book promotions and property selling.

Some of the US supreme court’s conservative judges are mired in ethical controversies that have prompted members of Congress to call for not only testimony from Chief Justice John Roberts, but also for formal accountability, for what they say is democracy’s sake.

Senate Democrats this week have called for a vote on a bill to establish a code of conduct for the supreme court justices similar to those that other government agencies must follow. The bill, unlikely to pass in a divided Congress, would demand the court create a code within 180 days and establish rules on recusals related to potential conflicts of interest and disclosure of gifts and travel.

The ethical concerns involving court justices have continued to mount. Most recently, the Guardian reported that lawyers who have conducted business before the US supreme court have paid an aide to Clarence Thomas money via Venmo.

Here’s a rundown of the ethical controversies supreme court justices have been involved in.

Real estate transactions

Clarence Thomas’s friend Harlan Crow, the Texas Republican billionaire mega-donor, bought three properties that the conservative justice and his family owned, including Thomas’s childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, where Thomas’s mother still lives. Crow made significant renovations, cleared blight and let Thomas’s mother live there rent-free. The cost was more than $100,000 but was not disclosed. Crow has said the purchase was made to eventually turn the home into a museum for Thomas.

Justice Neil Gorsuch sold a 40-acre property he co-owned in rural Colorado after he became a justice, Politico reported. Brian Duffy, the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, which has had more than 20 cases before the supreme court, bought the property in 2017. Gorsuch disclosed the sale and reportedly made between $250,000 and $500,000, but he left blank the buyer’s identity.

School support

Crow paid thousands of dollars in private school tuition for two boarding schools that Thomas’s great-nephew attended, ProPublica reported. The transaction was not disclosed.

An investigation by the Associated Press revealed how colleges and universities attract supreme court justices to campuses as a way to generate donations for institutions, raising ethical concerns around a court that, unlike other government agencies, does not have a formal code of conduct. The visits have resulted in all-expenses-paid teaching opportunities and book sales. Government aides from other branches such as Congress and the presidency are barred from using government resources for personal gain.

Money to partners

The Republican activist Leonard Leo paid Thomas’s wife, Ginni, $25,000 for polling services in January 2012, telling the Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to make “no mention of Ginni”, the Washington Post reported. It’s unclear whether that is a direct ethical concern for Clarence Thomas but it may constitute a conflict of interest.

Ginni, who also attended the January 6 attack at the Capitol, reportedly exchanged text messages with the then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, encouraging him to support then president Donald Trump’s false election fraud claims aimed at subverting the results of his 2020 electoral defeat. The Judicial Education Project, a law firm tied to Leo, filed a brief to the supreme court in the landmark case that eventually gutted the Voting Rights Act not long after the payment was made.

Roberts’ wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, ran a legal recruiting firm that raised ethical concerns since she made millions of dollars in commissions from placing lawyers at firms, some of which appeared before the court. The New York Times obtained a letter from a former colleague of Roberts to the US justice department and Congress inquiring about the connection.

Luxury trips

For more than two decades, Thomas accepted millions of dollars’ worth of luxury trips on private planes and “superyachts”, and vacations from his friend Crow without reporting them on financial disclosure forms, ProPublica reported. Crow has said that he did not attempt to influence Thomas politically or legally nor did he discuss pending supreme court cases. Thomas said he was told he was not required to disclose the trips. Notably, a company linked to Crow was involved in at least one case before the US supreme court, Bloomberg reported. Thomas did not recuse himself from the case.

Justice Samuel Alito reportedly took a private jet to an all-expenses-covered fishing trip to Alaska, paid for by the hedge fund billionaire and conservative mega-donor Paul Singer. NPR reports that Singer has been involved in 10 appeals to the supreme court. In an unprecedented move, Alito defended himself in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, declaring he did not have to recuse himself and followed what he “understood to be standard practice”.

Source: The Guardian