Supreme Court Justices and Donors Interact during Campus Visits: Unveiling Ethical Dilemmas

by Ethan Kim
Supreme Court Ethics

When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a guest speaker at McLennan Community College in Texas in 2017, the event organizers had more than just a speech in mind. Collaborating with prominent conservative lawyer Ken Starr, the school officials carefully curated a guest list for a dinner hosted by a wealthy Texas businessman. Their intention was to provide an opportunity for influential school patrons to interact with Justice Thomas and potentially attract prospective donors.

Prior to Justice Elena Kagan’s visit to the University of Colorado’s law school in 2019, a university official in Boulder suggested a higher ratio of donors to staff members at a dinner with her. Similarly, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmed her attendance at a 2017 question-and-answer session at Clemson University, officials made sure to invite donors who had contributed $1 million or more to the South Carolina college.

The Big Big News obtained a substantial number of emails and documents that shed light on the extent to which public colleges and universities have viewed visits by Supreme Court justices as opportunities to generate donations. These documents reveal a regular occurrence of justices being present alongside influential donors, including individuals with interests before the court.

Furthermore, the documents disclose instances in which justices from various ideological backgrounds have engaged in partisan activities, such as headlining speaking events with prominent politicians, and have advanced their own personal interests, including book sales, through their visits to educational institutions.

While such conduct would likely be prohibited for lower court federal judges, the Supreme Court’s definition of banned fundraising is remarkably narrow. The current definition solely considers events that generate more funds than they cost or involve direct solicitation of donations. It fails to address the practice of later soliciting contributions from individuals who were granted special access or reminders of the access they had during these events.

In response to inquiries, the Supreme Court stated, “The Court routinely asks event organizers to confirm that an event at which a Justice will speak is not a fundraiser, and it provides a definition of ‘fundraiser’ to avoid misunderstandings.” The Court also added that it follows up with event organizers to gather further information as needed, which has led to justices declining to participate in events that were initially claimed not to be fundraisers but were later confirmed as such.

These revelations come at a critical moment for the Supreme Court, as its integrity is being called into question due to concerns about ethical violations by justices and controversial court rulings, including the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. A survey conducted in 2022 indicated that trust in the court has reached a 50-year low, with only 18% expressing a high level of confidence.

One of the central issues being raised about the court is its lack of a formal code of conduct, leaving justices without a universally accepted set of rules. This absence of a common reference point, according to retired federal Judge Jeremy Fogel, creates ambiguity and subjective judgments regarding ethical matters. Fogel, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and previously led an agency responsible for educating judges on ethics, emphasizes that this situation leads to questions of legitimacy, posing a significant challenge.

While lower court federal judges are generally prohibited from engaging in fundraising, political activities, and using the prestige of their judicial office for personal interests, Supreme Court justices are only asked to adhere to a set of “ethics principles and practices” outlined by Chief Justice John Roberts in a statement signed by all nine members of the court. The disclosure of expenses-paid travel is limited, and there are instances where events are not disclosed at all.

The Supreme Court has historically benefited from the assumption that justices, who earn an annual salary of $285,400 (excluding Chief Justice Roberts, who earns more), have chosen public service over more lucrative opportunities. However, recent reporting has revealed ethical lapses, including Justice Thomas accepting luxury vacations, raising questions about the perception of justices’ commitment to public service. These revelations have sparked demands for an ethics code and greater transparency regarding justices’ travel.

To bridge information gaps, the AP filed over 100 public records requests to obtain details on donors, politicians attending private receptions, and other perks associated with academic trips. Although private institutions were also contacted, they are not subject to public records laws and mostly declined to provide information.

While some justices have been cautious about attending events with donors, the documents demonstrate instances where the appearance of impropriety arose. In one case, Justice Sotomayor declined a private dinner invitation with major donors to the University of Hawaii, citing the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, which cautions against lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests.

The investigation by The Big Big News also found instances where justices, including Thomas, have attended events where donors were present. For example, at McLennan Community College, local business people, political leaders, lawyers, and GOP donors were invited to a private dinner with Justice Thomas. Meanwhile, at the University of Texas at Tyler, Justice Thomas participated in a lecture and dinner sponsored by donors linked to Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, who later spearheaded a lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

The investigation further highlights instances where justices’ travels have had political implications. For example, Justice Gorsuch’s visit to the University of Kentucky law school was intended to generate funds for an academic center honoring one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s close associates. During the visit, Gorsuch also attended events with Republican donors, including Joe Craft III, owner of a large coal-mining company, who sought regulatory changes benefiting the industry. The Supreme Court subsequently issued a ruling favoring the coal industry.

The AP’s investigation underscores the need for a formal code of conduct for Supreme Court justices and increased transparency regarding their interactions with donors and political figures during campus visits. The current practices raise concerns about the court’s integrity and impartiality, leading to calls for reform to restore public trust in the highest judicial body in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Supreme Court ethics

What do the documents reveal about Supreme Court justices and campus visits?

The documents reveal that Supreme Court justices attending campus visits often mingle with donors, raising ethical concerns. They shed light on fundraising activities, partisan engagements, and the lack of transparency.

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JaneDoe74 July 11, 2023 - 9:53 pm

wow, this text shows suprme court justices mingling with donors and fundrasing at campus visits! ethicle dilemas & partisan activity is a big problem, they need a code of conduct and transparency!! very interesting article.

LegalEagle101 July 11, 2023 - 11:15 pm

amazing how these justices are putting themselves in questionable situations with donors. they need to understand that ppl are selling access to them! the Court needs a clear code of conduct, this ain’t looking good. transparency is crucial!

JohnSmith22 July 12, 2023 - 1:26 pm

these docs reveal how Supreme Court justices atnd campus visits & get close to big donors. the lack of rules & transparency is a concern! they shud be more careful, it affects public trust in the Court. need some serious changes!


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