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Money Matters: A Closer Look at Supreme Court Justices’ Disclosures

Supreme Court Justices' annual financial disclosure came out in early June due to some of the Justices facing increasing scrutiny over potential conflicts of interest and ties to affluent donors. Financial disclosures promote transparency and accountability, as they require the Justices to disclose their income, assets, investments, liabilities and, most controversially, gifts and reimbursements. The disclosures have recently garnered public attention after multiple Justices were exposed for omitting large gifts and extravagant trips from their statements.

This year's disclosures detailed 19 trips Justices had received reimbursement for in the last year. These trips, 11 of which were covered by universities, were taken by almost all court members and were typically educational or speaking events. Justices Coney Barrett, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Kagan, Sotomayor and Roberts Jr. did not report any gifts. Justice Thomas reported two gifted photo albums valued at $2,000 and Justice Jackson reported two pieces of artwork for her chambers collectively valued at $12,500. Justice Jackson also notably reported four concert tickets gifted to her by Beyonce for her “Renaissance World Tour” which were valued at $3,711.84.

This year, Justice Clarence Thomas amended his 2019 disclosure to include two of the luxury trips paid for by conservative billionaire Harlan Crow. Justice Thomas and his family have been taking trips with Crow on a near-yearly basis for over two decades. Two trips had not been disclosed on his 2019 statement and were only added after a ProPublica report exposed them and forced him to report them for the first time last year. Justice Thomas has traveled via Crow's private planes and yachts to resorts and islands worldwide. Justice Thomas has reported other gifts from Crow in his disclosures in the past, such as a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass, and other gifts worth at least $2.4 million over the past 20 years of the pair's friendship which started after Thomas became a Justice. 

While the disclosure indicated that the two 2019 trips were “inadvertently omitted” from that year's report, the sheer value of the gifts begs the question: Why does Justice Thomas think he is ethically able to accept millions of dollars in gifts from an influential figure in pro-business conservative politics and has elsewhere spent millions on efforts to shape the law and the judiciary to his ideology? Especially when his approach to ethics has already attracted public attention and backlash.

In 2021, Americans for Prosperity, a company in the Koch family network, was involved in a Supreme Court case in which Justice Thomas did not recuse himself despite his long and close relationship with the conservative Koch network. After the backlash on his lack of recusal from the court, all justices signed a new ethics code pledging to step aside from a case when "impartiality might be reasonably questioned" or when a justice or a spouse has a financial interest in the dispute. This code and its enforceability were tested and failed when Justice Thomas refused to recuse himself from a case involving Donald Trump's potential presidential immunity regarding criminal prosecution in the January 6 capital riots, even though his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, attended the rally Trump held before the attack on the Capital commenced. 

Thomas’ refusal to recuse himself from cases before the court that involved his personal interests is deeply problematic, and the lack of hard social, political or legal accountability that Justice Thomas or any justice can be held to is even more problematic. There are currently no mechanisms in place to enforce and investigate possible violations of the ethics code so it instead relies on the honor system, which has repeatedly failed in the Roberts court.

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

1 comentario

Amazing piece Alison! I did not know the Supreme Court Judges could accept such gifts. It is surprising and concerning how some of them bend the "ethic rules" while playing such a crucial role in the preservation of the integrity of the American democracy.

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