The Inside Story of Big Big News’ Investigation into Supreme Court Justices’ Ethical Conduct

by Chloe Baker
Supreme Court Ethics Investigation

Big Big News embarked on a thorough investigation of the U.S. Supreme Court justices’ ethical practices, sourcing information from more than 100 public records requests directed to public educational institutions and other entities that have hosted the justices in the past ten years.

Here is an in-depth view of the investigative process:

To begin the investigation, Big Big News reviewed local news reports and social media activity and gathered data from ScotusTracker, a website that maintains a log of justices’ activities. This allowed the creation of a comprehensive list of justices’ appearances spanning the last decade.

In the closing months of 2022 and early 2023, Big Big News filed records requests to the public institutions listed, referring to state laws mandating the disclosure of specific documents to the public.

Big Big News: Why the Supreme Court Follows Different Rules
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The distinct ethical scrutiny around the Supreme Court leads us to question how the judiciary differs from legislative and executive branches. (July 11)

The requests included a wide array of information such as details on contracts or riders for appearances, transportation, food and lodging for events, the event recording policy, and any proposed or offered gifts or honorariums, including books.

Supreme Court justices’ campus visits and travel bring them in contact with significant donors
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s staff urges colleges and libraries to purchase her books
Takeaways from Big Big News’ investigation into Supreme Court ethics include book sales, money lure, and more
Justices teach when the Supreme Court isn’t in session, often resulting in an all-expenses-paid trip

Moreover, Big Big News requested similar information from over 100 private colleges, universities, and charities that have hosted justices or organized events for them. Few provided substantive information, though some confirmed basic details of the visits.

Big Big News logged the justices’ travels and benefits and collated lists of guests, including donors and politicians, who attended private events with justices. They cross-verified this information using federal court records, Federal Election Commission filings, and other publicly available resources.

An email from July 10, 2018, providing the syllabus for a law class taught by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch in Italy was photographed on July 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Responses from public institutions were varied. Certain schools, such as the University of Rhode Island, Ohio State University, Stony Brook University, and the University of California, Davis, offered records free of charge. Others, including George Mason University and the University of Kentucky, submitted thousands of pages of records.

McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, delivered 104 pages of records in March. After a payment of $110, they mailed a box filled with blue folders containing hundreds of additional pages. A journalist also visited the college to witness the location of a dinner organized for Justice Clarence Thomas.

In some cases, Big Big News made multiple requests to the same institution if the initial request needed to be significantly narrowed, or if more information seemed available. For instance, a follow-up request was filed with the University of Texas at Tyler for a dinner guest list featuring Justice Thomas, and with the University of Mississippi for the cost of a flight taken by Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Scalia’s relatives in 2014.

Certain institutions were less cooperative. Big Big News had to involve the Illinois state attorney general to procure documents from the Chicago Public Library related to a visit by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Other institutions, like the University of Arizona, claimed their search for records was still in progress after over six months.

Big Big News paid some schools for documents. These include the University of Utah ($350), Michigan State University ($140), University of Minnesota ($159.24), and University of Mississippi (roughly $150). However, some schools, like the University of Georgia, responded with exorbitant fee requests, initially demanding $18,800.50 for two requests, though this was later reduced after Big Big News narrowed its request.

Big Big News is supported by numerous private foundations to augment its in-depth coverage of elections and democracy. You can find out more about Big Big News’ democracy initiative here. Big Big News is solely accountable for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Supreme Court ethics investigation

What was the focus of Big Big News’ investigation into the Supreme Court justices’ ethics practices?

Big Big News conducted an extensive investigation into the ethics practices of U.S. Supreme Court justices, specifically examining their interactions with public and private institutions, financial disclosures, and potential conflicts of interest.

How did Big Big News gather information for the investigation?

To gather information, Big Big News utilized a variety of methods. They surveyed local news stories and social media, obtained data from ScotusTracker, a website tracking justices’ activities, and submitted over 100 public records requests to educational institutions and other entities that have hosted the justices over the past ten years.

What kind of information did Big Big News request from the public institutions?

Big Big News requested a broad range of information, including details about contracts or riders for appearances, transportation, food and lodging arrangements, event recording policies, and any gifts or honorariums discussed or offered, including books.

Did Big Big News receive cooperation from the institutions?

Cooperation varied among institutions. Some schools provided records free of charge or turned over thousands of pages of information. However, some institutions were less forthcoming, necessitating involvement from state attorneys general or experiencing ongoing searches for records.

How did Big Big News verify the information they gathered?

To verify the information, Big Big News cross-referenced guest lists and attendees at private events with data from federal court records, Federal Election Commission filings, online photo albums, and other publicly available sources.

Did Big Big News encounter any challenges during the investigation?

Yes, Big Big News encountered challenges during the investigation. Some institutions demanded unreasonable fees for records, which Big Big News deemed excessive. Additionally, certain institutions required follow-up requests due to initial responses suggesting the availability of further details.

What were the key findings of Big Big News’ investigation?

The investigation revealed travel and perks afforded to the justices, including lists of guests at private receptions. It also shed light on potential connections to significant donors and politicians. Book sales and the use of teaching opportunities as all-expenses-paid trips were among the notable findings.

Who supported Big Big News in conducting this investigation?

Big Big News received support from several private foundations to enhance its coverage of elections and democracy. They are solely responsible for the content produced as part of this investigation.

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Emily123 July 11, 2023 - 10:41 pm

This investigation is so important! Big Big News really showed how the Supreme Court plays by diffrent rules. i mean, the stuff they found abt guests and donations is mind-blowin. we need transparency and accountabilty in our highest court!

Jane Doe July 11, 2023 - 11:03 pm

wow this investigation by Big Big News is amazing! they really went all out to dig up the dirt on the Supreme Court justices. cant believe some schools wanted to charge ridiculous fees for records. kudos to them for uncoverin it all!

John Smith July 12, 2023 - 9:27 am

lol Big Big News did a gr8 job investigatin the ethics of the Suprem Court justices! i wud nevr hav thot abt all the perks they get. and som institutions were like nope we not givin u info. but they found a way! im impressed.


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