AP Investigation Reveals Supreme Court Ethics: Book Sales and Monetary Influence

by Chloe Baker
fokus keyword Supreme Court

The Big Big News conducted an extensive investigation, delving into the practices surrounding Supreme Court justices’ visits to colleges and universities for lectures and events. Through the examination of tens of thousands of pages obtained from over 100 public records requests, revealing information about donors, politicians, perks, and the impact on book sales, The Big Big News shed light on what occurs behind the scenes.

Here are the key findings:

Book Sales:

The obtained documents exposed how university visits serve as a convenient platform for Supreme Court justices to promote and sell their books. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a prolific author and the justice with the most active travel schedule over the past decade, particularly utilized these opportunities. The records reviewed by the AP revealed emails and other documents indicating direct involvement of Supreme Court staff members in facilitating book sales. They would inquire with schools about the desired quantity of book purchases and assist in arranging the acquisition of large quantities.

For instance, at a 2019 event jointly hosted by the Multnomah County Library in Oregon and Portland Community College, an aide of Justice Sotomayor expressed that “250 books is definitely not enough” for a program expecting 1,000 attendees, who were required to possess a copy for a signing session with the justice. Michigan State University even purchased 11,000 copies to distribute among incoming first-year students. When Clemson University expressed concerns that 60 copies might be excessive for Sotomayor to sign, a staff member reassured them, stating that most institutions typically order 400 or more copies.

In another instance, before a scheduled visit to the law school at the University of California, Davis, in 2018, the court staff proposed utilizing the event as an opportunity to distribute books.

In response to these findings, a Supreme Court spokesperson stated that staff members aim to adhere to judicial ethics guidance and emphasized that attendees have never been required to purchase a book to attend an event. The spokesperson further clarified that schools occasionally invite Justice Sotomayor to participate in programs where they select a book for an entire school or a freshman class, and the justice delivers a book talk. In such cases, the number of books recommended by the court’s Chambers staff is based on the audience size, so as not to disappoint attendees who anticipate book availability. Additionally, the court staff will connect colleges or universities with the justice’s publisher upon request.

Monetary Influence:

While Supreme Court justices maintain that they neither can nor do participate in fundraising events, the obtained emails demonstrate that the court’s definition of a fundraiser excludes much of the effort typically involved in soliciting donations from wealthy contributors.

This leniency has allowed universities to actively court affluent patrons. For example, before an event featuring Justice Clarence Thomas in 2017, officials at McLennan Community College in Texas collaborated with prominent conservative lawyer Ken Starr and his wife, Alice, to create a guest list that would reward school patrons and incentivize future contributions. Starr’s widow referred to it as “friendraising.” In the event planning email, the college foundation’s executive director mentioned having thoughts about inviting individuals who were wealthy conservative Catholics aligned with Clarence Thomas and had not previously made donations.

Justice Thomas is not the only one whose position on the court has been utilized by schools to engage with potential donors. Prior to Justice Elena Kagan’s visit to the University of Colorado’s law school, an official suggested a “larger donor to staff ratio” for a 2019 dinner with her, as evidenced by the emails. Another event organizer expressed openness to suggestions regarding which VIP donors to cultivate relationships with. A university spokesperson clarified that no donations were requested from attendees in relation to the event.

Similarly, when Clemson University hosted Sotomayor for a 2017 session with students and a private luncheon, one official expressed hope that these events, which included donors, would ultimately generate resources for the university’s Humanities Advancement Board. As university officials devised a guest list, an alumni relations official emphasized the inclusion of corporate donors at the $1 million level.

In response, a court spokesperson stated that justices exercise caution when attending events that may be deemed political in nature. They adhere to the guidance provided in the Code of Conduct, which cautions against engaging in political activity. The spokesperson clarified that the mere presence of an elected official at an event attended by a justice does not automatically render it impermissibly political.

Political Encounters:

While visits to universities are ostensibly promoted as academic in nature, they have facilitated interactions between justices and elected officials.

For instance, shortly after his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch attended an event at the University of Kentucky with then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The event was hosted by a center dedicated to studying the judiciary and named after one of McConnell’s closest friends, a former federal judge.

In 2020, after teaching a weeklong course at the University of Florida’s law school, Justice Thomas extended his stay to attend a gathering of the regional branch of the Federalist Society in Florida. During the event, he received effusive praise from Governor Ron DeSantis, and the two also had a private dinner.

During a visit to the University of Texas at Tyler, Thomas attended a private dinner sponsored by a group of donors to then-Representative Louie Gohmert. Six years later, Gohmert would lead a lawsuit aiming to grant Vice President Mike Pence the power to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election that Donald Trump lost.

A court spokesperson stated that justices exercise caution when attending events that could be described as political and follow the Code of Conduct’s guidance to avoid engaging in political activities. They emphasized that the presence of an elected official at an event attended by a justice does not necessarily make the event impermissibly political.

Ethics Code and Conclusion:

Some of the revealed conduct likely violates ethics rules that apply to officials in other government branches and lower federal court judges.

While lower court judges are generally prohibited from engaging in fundraising, political activities, and using their judicial office’s prestige for personal interests, Supreme Court justices are only expected to adhere to a set of “foundational ethics principles and practices,” as stated by Chief Justice John Roberts in April.

The information disclosed in this review arrives at a time of diminishing confidence in the court, partly due to a series of media revelations concerning its members. ProPublica’s reports, for instance, detailed how Justice Thomas accepted luxury vacations, including a $500,000 trip to Indonesia in 2019, and engaged in property transactions and tuition agreements with Harlan Crow, a billionaire businessman, Republican donor, and longtime friend.

The Big Big News receives support from various private foundations to enhance its coverage of elections and democracy. More information about the AP’s democracy initiative can be found here. The AP bears full responsibility for all content.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court at this link.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Supreme Court ethics

Q: What does the investigation reveal about Supreme Court ethics?

A: The investigation reveals various aspects of Supreme Court ethics, including the promotion and sale of books by justices during university visits, the influence of monetary factors in these visits, and the encounters between justices and elected officials. It raises concerns about transparency and ethical conduct in these practices.

Q: How are book sales linked to Supreme Court justices’ university visits?

A: The investigation shows that university visits serve as an opportunity for justices, particularly Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to sell their books. Supreme Court staff members have been actively involved in facilitating book sales by inquiring about desired quantities from schools and assisting in the purchase of large quantities.

Q: Are attendees required to purchase books to attend events with justices?

A: According to a Supreme Court spokesperson, attendees have never been required to buy a book in order to attend an event. However, in some cases, schools have invited Justice Sotomayor to participate in programs where a book is selected for an entire school or freshman class, and the justice delivers a book talk. The number of books recommended by the court’s staff is based on the audience size.

Q: How does monetary influence come into play during university visits?

A: The obtained emails suggest that universities actively court wealthy patrons during these visits. The court’s definition of a fundraiser, which excludes much of the effort involved in soliciting donations, allows schools to engage in activities aimed at rewarding patrons and incentivizing future contributions.

Q: Do Supreme Court justices engage in political activities during university visits?

A: Justices exercise caution in attending events that may be described as political and follow the Code of Conduct’s guidance to avoid engaging in political activity. The mere presence of an elected official at an event attended by a justice does not necessarily make it impermissibly political.

Q: How does this investigation impact confidence in the Supreme Court?

A: The disclosed information raises concerns about ethical conduct and transparency within the Supreme Court. It arrives at a time of diminishing confidence in the court, with media revelations about justices’ actions further contributing to this sentiment.

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GrammarPolice July 11, 2023 - 3:58 pm

Great info, but please fix some grammar and spelling errors. It’s important to maintain proper punctuation and clarity in news articles. Keep up the good work!

BookLover27 July 11, 2023 - 4:04 pm

So the justices are using their visits to universities to sell books? seems like a smart marketing strategy but also kinda sketchy if they’re using their positions for personal gain.

LawStudent2023 July 11, 2023 - 7:08 pm

As a law student, this investigation is eye-opening. Justices are supposed to be impartial and uphold the law. It’s disheartening to see the potential influence of money and politics on their actions. We need a strong and unbiased judiciary!

JohnDoe123 July 11, 2023 - 11:53 pm

wow i cant believe this investgation reveals all this stuff abt the supreme court! its rlly concerning to see how book sales n money play a role in their actions. transparency is so impornt in our institutions!

NewsJunkie101 July 11, 2023 - 11:55 pm

This investigation raises serious questions abt the ethics of the supreme court. I mean, justices engaging in fundraising events and mingling with politicians? Shouldn’t they be impartial and independent? Transparency and accountability are crucial!


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