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From bench to book signings, Supreme Court ethics rules pose no barrier

Publishing deals and teaching engagements top the justices’ outside earnings, according to the latest disclosures.

WASHINGTON (CN) — New financial discourse reports show the justices of the Supreme Court earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2021 on lucrative book deals that do not count toward limits on extra income regulated by ethics rules. 

Supreme Court justices are limited in how much outside income they can earn while on the bench. Ethics rules prevent them from earning more than around $30,000 per year in outside income, but book earnings don’t factor into this limit. 

The disclosure reports released by Fix the Court on Thursday show Justice Amy Coney Barrett earning $425,000 in book royalties from the Javelin Group. Not much is known about Barrett’s forthcoming book, but reports have said the deal is with a conservative Penguin Random House imprint. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch reported earning $250,000 from HarperCollins for a book advance. Justice Sonia Sotomayor earned $115,593 for two children’s books. For one of these books, which was optioned to a TV production, the Obama appointee reported an additional $5,125.

The other top source for the justices’ extra earnings outside of books was teaching. These earnings do factor into outside income that is capped at $29,895. Justice Clarence Thomas was the biggest earner in this group, reporting $29,595 for teaching at George Washington and Notre Dame law schools. Barrett also reported earnings from Notre Dame. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh reported earnings from George Mason, making $26,541 and $25,541, respectively. 

Experts say the justices’ university earnings reflect a pattern of justices catering to partisan audiences, similar to speaking events hosted by interest groups. 

“It’s bad enough that the justices predominantly speak to interest groups that serve their perceived teams, with conservative justices appearing at Fed Soc events and the liberals at the American Constitution Society with almost no crossover,” Gabe Roth, executive director at Fix the Court, said in a statement. “But to make matters worse, all three Trump-appointed justices are teaching at their teams’ law schools, namely hard-right George Mason and Notre Dame, which is not a great look from a supposedly apolitical institution.” 

The justices are required to report the source of their spouse’s income but not the amount. Controversy erupted this term over potential conflicts between how the work from a justice’s partner could conflict with the justices’ rulings on the bench. Thomas was at the center of these conversations as reporting revealed his wife’s ties to cases before the court through her political activism. While Thomas did not report how much his wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas earned at Liberty Consulting, which she founded in 2010, the conservative justice valued the business at $15,000 or less. This is a decrease from previous years. In 2020 the consulting agency was valued at up to $50,000, and it was reported at up to $250,000 in 2019.  

Barrett’s disclosure redacted her husband’s employer, although publicly available information shows he is a partner at SouthBank Legal. 

The justices are also required to report any gifts they receive. Gorsuch noted receiving a pair of cowboy boots from the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society that were valued at $699.99. 

Although the Covid-19 pandemic limited the justices’ travel, some did report travel reimbursements. Gorsuch and Kagan took a trip to Iceland for a teaching trip with George Mason and were reimbursed for transportation, lodging and meals. Barrett noted her controversial speech at the McConnell Center where she said the justices weren’t “partisan hacks.” She was reimbursed for her flight, hotel and meal. 

Justice Samuel Alito has not yet submitted his 2021 disclosure report. 

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