SCOTUS Justices' College Visits Get Ethically Murky

Schools often have them hobnob with donors and raise mega-bucks
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 11, 2023 1:45 PM CDT
Justices Should Know 'People Are Selling Access to Them'
After Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmed a 2017 visit to Clemson University, a faculty member, commenting on the event's higher-than-expected costs, described it as a "'takes money to make money' moment," in this email photographed on June 27, 2023.   (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

The AP is out with a massive report on the extracurricular activities of the Supreme Court justices—specifically their seemingly innocuous visits to college campuses. But, as the agency reports, it uncovered "tens of thousands of pages of emails and other documents that reveal the extent to which public colleges and universities have seen visits by justices as opportunities to generate donations—regularly putting justices in the room with influential donors, including some whose industries have had interests before the court." Justices both liberal and conservative have found themselves in ethically tricky situations that would likely be prohibited at lower levels of the judiciary. The Supreme Court, however, has a very vague definition of banned fundraising.

"The justices should be aware that people are selling access to them," says University of Virginia law professor and ethics expert Amanda Frost. "I don't think they are naive, but they certainly have been putting themselves in situations where people can credibly claim, 'I'm giving you access,' or 'I'm going to fundraise off my claimed closeness or access.' And that is a problem." The court has long benefited from the presumption that the justices, who this year were paid $285,400—Chief Justice John Roberts earned more—have chosen public service over far more lucrative opportunities. The AP used more than 100 public records requests to obtain details including identities of donors and politicians invited to private receptions as well as about perks for trips portrayed as academic. Some highlights:

  • At least one justice, Sonia Sotomayor, seemed keenly aware of hobnobbing with donors. Early in her tenure, she rejected an invite to dine with major contributors to the University of Hawaii during a 2012 visit. "No, the Justice will not do a private dinner at a 'club' with (a longtime) donor of the Law School," an aide wrote to school officials.
  • Before Sotomayor visited Clemson University in 2017, her staff advised a preference against donors at a luncheon. But the invitation list nonetheless was clogged with guests who had given at least $1 million to the school—some posed for photos with the justice. One organizer called the event's costs a "'takes money to make money' moment."
  • When Clarence Thomas headlined a 2017 program at McLennan Community College in Texas, his hosts worked with prominent conservative lawyer Ken Starr to craft a guest list for a dinner at the home of a wealthy Texas businessman, hoping an audience with Thomas would be a reward for school patrons. The school scheduled a public interview, a book signing, and two private dinners.
  • As University of Colorado law school officials developed a dinner guest list before a 2019 Elena Kagan visit, one organizer proposed a larger "donor to staff ratio" while a second said she was open to suggestions about which "VIP donors" the school "would like to cultivate relationships with." A university spokesperson said that there were "no solicitations" rep to the event and that no gifts were made as a result of it.
  • Less than six months after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, thanks in no small part to the efforts of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Gorsuch was featured at an event organizers hoped would help eventually raise money for a University of Kentucky law school center honoring one of McConnell's closest friends, the late US District Judge John Heyburn II. After Gorsuch's public talk, the agenda called for Gorsuch and McConnell to dine with a small private group before a reception at the university president's house.

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  • In January 2020, Thomas mixed a four-day teaching assignment at the University of Florida's law school with gatherings involving university donors and political figures. The school arranged for its private jet to ferry Thomas and his former law clerk Kathryn Mizelle, at a cost of $16,800. In a statement, a university rep called the chartered flight "standard practice."
  • Also on Thomas: All this comes after the New York Times did a deep dive over the weekend on Thomas' ties to the elite and highly influential Horatio Alger Association. "His friendships forged through Horatio Alger have brought him proximity to a lifestyle of unimaginable material privilege," the story reads. "Over the years, his Horatio Alger friends have welcomed him at their vacation retreats, arranged V.I.P. access to sporting events and invited him to their lavish parties."
  • Also on Sotomayor: In a separate report, the AP reports that Sotomayor's "staff has often prodded public institutions that have hosted the justice to buy her memoir or children's books, works that have earned her at least $3.7 million since she joined the court in 2009."
Much more from the AP report here. (More US Supreme Court stories.)

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