WASHINGTON (CN) — Peeking into chambers, a self-appointed Supreme Court watchdog on Tuesday tallied up the private flights and other hidden perks justices enjoy when invited to speak at universities.
In addition to the private plane trips — Justice Clarence Thomas took one in 2015 to speak at the University of Florida — the 20-page report from the group Fix the Court details a $500-a-plate VIP dinner that Justice Stephen Breyer attended before a 2016 lecture at the University of Texas, as well as undisclosed gifts like Wisconsin football gear given to Justice Elena Kagan and silver julep cups to Justice Neil Gorsuch.
In 2017, the University of South Carolina offered to fly Justice Samuel Alito out private as well, but Alito apparently did not take the school up on the offer.
Fix the Court director Gabe Roth noted in an interview that VIP benefits are expected, to some extent, with a seat on the high court.
“Most of the time there is not anything wrong with that,” Roth said. “But there are certain instances where we just don’t know how close to the ethical line the justices are coming because their disclosure rules are so lax compared to public figures elsewhere in the federal government or even judges in some of our state courts.”
The federally mandated threshold for judicial members to report gifts is $390, and all nine justices submit disclosure reports annually, but the disclosure rules are far less rigorous than those that bind lawmakers.
On both sides of Capitol Hill, there is legislation pending before committees to mandate the nine justices disclose the cost of transportation, lodging and meals when they travel. Roth said the bills would reinforce trust in the Supreme Court at a time when public confidence in the institution is faltering.
“In the past SCOTUS hasn't been a beacon of transparency and you want to trust them,” he said. “But you have got to verify that they are doing the right thing.”
Fix the Court surveyed 3,793 pages of documents from 13 public colleges and universities, acquired through public records request. Tuesday’s report goes through dozens of trips by every sitting member of the court except for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. As the Trump appointee has embarked on just one public university-sponsored trip since joining the court in 2018, Fix the Court did not request documents on him.
While the organization found that the justices generally follow gift and travel disclosure rules, it said the need for ethics reform and increased transparency remains urgent.
Justices Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor both failed to report travel expenses on their annual reports in 2018 and 2016, respectively.
Fix the Court says the Thomas report fails to mention whether his food, travel and lodging was covered when he taught at the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia Schools of Law.
Sotomayor’s expenses associated with a trip to serve as the University of Rhode Island commencement speaker likely ran higher. The justice booked 11 hotel rooms at a hotel overlooking the Atlantic — one for herself, two for family friends and eight for security, according to the report
Fix the Court estimates that the justice may have racked up a $9,285.21 bill on the Rhode Island stay.
“It is likely, of course, that the university has a discount with the hotel, but even so, this is not a negligible expense — and is not one that the justice should have left off her disclosure report,” the report states.
Another slip-up by Justice Thomas detailed in the report is his weeklong co-teaching stint at the University of Florida in 2016. “Please let me know his preferred brand of coffee,” one school official wrote in preparation for the justice, according to a redacted communication supplied to Fix the Court.
Roth, with Fix the Court, said the organization views these kinds of disclosure failures as honest mistakes, not attempts to mislead the public.
Indeed, while most of the justices rely on finance firms or court clerks to file the reports, Justice Sotomayor compiles her own disclosures, he said.
That the justices should be guarded with heavy-security details is also not up for debate. Roth noted that Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Marshal’s Office document the various threats members of the high court face.
Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, wrote Fix the Court in an email that the organization’s watchful eye was appreciated.
“Due to Covid-19, chambers will amend their reports at the earliest possible opportunity,” Arberg wrote to Roth on March 23. “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. All the best to you in these uncertain times.”
Fix the Court did credit the justices for “making a concerted effort” to show up for events at public universities, given the majority of the top-14 law schools are private institutions. Of the 238 trips since 2015 to postsecondary education events, 32% of the justices’ visits were to public schools.
“Third, and this is separate from our findings but is worth mentioning, we are pleased the justices are making a concerted effort to visit public colleges and universities, not only Harvard, Yale and Columbia – i.e., where the current justices attended law school,” the report states.
The Supreme Court press office did not respond to requests for comment before publication.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.