The whiff of corruption emanating from the U.S. Supreme Court got a lot stronger in recent days, as the traditional media continues to delve deeper into the story of how the court has been captured by far-right dark money and extremely lax oversight by a chief justice. The reporting shows that Clarence Thomas isn’t the only right-wing justice living high on the hog thanks to some extremist billionaires, or to cash in on their vaunted position.
That includes Chief Justice John Roberts. Business Insider has reported exactly how lucrative his spouse’s work as a head-hunter for corporate law firms has been for the Roberts’ household. In 2007, two years after John Roberts was confirmed as the Chief Justice by former President George W. Bush, Jane Roberts stepped away from her role as an attorney to pivot to recruiting big-time lawyers for big-time law firms. From 2007 to 2014, Jane Roberts was working at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, where she reportedly earned $10.3 million in commissions for recruiting, on top of her salary.
In a November 2021 interview with Law Dragon, she said, "There are many paths to the good life. … There are so many things to do if you're open to change and opportunity."
The New York Times first reported on the dubious ethics around Jane Roberts’ job recruiting attorneys. Although they didn’t include the specifics on the $10.3 million in commissions, they pretty clearly laid out the case that Mrs. Roberts was getting an awful lot of high-powered lawyers placed at high-powered law firms that conducted a great deal of business with Mr. Roberts’ court. Furthermore, it demonstrated that Mr. Roberts not only failed to recuse himself from those cases, he failed to declare Mrs. Roberts’ income from commissions in his disclosure forms, citing only her salary with the firm.
Ah, the good life.
Three conservative SCOTUS judges—Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh—are also enjoying that good life, thanks to lucrative side hustles made possible by George Mason’s Scalia Law School. The Times had yet another court corruption blockbuster over the weekend, detailing how a [stet, leave “the”] law school funded by dark money gurus Leonard Leo and Charles Koch, has completely captured those three conservatives, not to mention the federal judiciary.
The law school was renamed for former Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, at the behest of Leo and his $30 million cash infusion. In the fall of 2017, months after Gorsuch’s confirmation, the administrator of the law school sent a confidential memo to fellow leaders, suggesting they put Gorsuch on the payroll as a teacher.
“Establishing and building a strong relationship with Justice Gorsuch during his first full term on the bench could be a game-changing opportunity for Scalia Law, as it looks to accelerate its already meteoric rise to the top rank of law schools in the United States,” the memo read. Gorsuch signed on, and within two years they also got Thomas and Kavanaugh on board.
In exchange for “teaching,” the justices get all expenses-paid gigs. Gorsuch has traveled to Iceland and Padua, Italy.Kavanaugh and his family were gifted “a nice cottage” in Surrey, England for the duration of their two week stay, courtesy of Scalia Law. Thomas, having all his overseas vacations already covered by his billionaire pal, confined his teaching to the George Mason campus.
For the two weeks of teaching in the summer, “Gorsuch and Kavanaugh each made salaries that approached the legal cap on certain outside income, roughly $30,000 in recent years,” the Times found. The “teaching” was also less than onerous, if an emailed proposal to Gorsuch is any guide. The school “made clear that his teaching responsibilities would be limited to the mornings, leaving plenty of time for excursions, including planned visits to Bologna and Florence,” the Times reports. To which Gorsuch replied “Fantastico!”
Amanda Frost, a law professor specializing in ethics at the University of Virginia who specializes in legal ethics, was blunt in her assessment. “Some of this sounds like all-expenses-paid vacations, with a little teaching thrown in,” she told the Times.
The Times piece details just how far the Scalia Law School has gone to capture the justices, including having Jamil N. Jaffer, a Scalia Law professor and founder of its new National Security Institute, act as Gorsuch’s “unofficial relocation consultant” to help the family find suitable accommodation in their new home in the Washington, D.C., area. That included arranging a tour of an equestrian estate in Virginia for Gorsuch’s wife. Jaffer also left his teaching duties to act as temporary clerk to Gorsuch at the Supreme Court.
It also makes clear that the school—shaped entirely by the architect of the conservative takeover of the court, Leonard Leo—has become the center of social and professional life for the justices, where their friends and colleagues and clerks all exist in a cocoon and how that cocoon operates to influence the business of the court.
Scalia Law professors are not simply regular filers; a quarter of the school’s briefs submitted to the court since the justices joined the faculty have been written by professors who served as the justices’ co-teachers, some while classes were ongoing.
The justice’s clerks, often Scalia Law graduates themselves, read those filings and pass them on to the justices. The very fact that the justices’ teaching colleagues are presenting briefings to them, Prof. Frost says, could create “the appearance of impropriety,” even if the cases were never discussed. “It’s the proximity in time that’s concerning,” she said. It’s yet another glaring lack of ethics at the highest court in the land.
Meanwhile, the right-wing juggernaut at the court continues. On Monday, the court announced it will take on another case contesting a long-standing precedent of the court, one that requires judges give deference to the government in resolving challenges to ambiguous federal laws.
The original case in 1984, Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, set precedent for lower courts. If a statute is unclear, courts should be guided by the government’s interpretation and rule-making under that statute, the court ruled. Since the conservative takeover, the Supreme Court has been chipping away at Chevron and arguing that the courts should be the final arbiter.
Thomas has argued that Chevron “wrests from Courts the ultimate interpretative authority ‘to say what the law is,’ and hands it over to” the executive branch. Gorsuch has written that the court “should acknowledge forthrightly that Chevron did not undo, and could not have undone, the judicial duty to provide an independent judgment of the law’s meaning in the cases that come before the Nation’s courts.” The court is king, these majority justices have declared.
They are bound by a new set of rules, rules that do not apply to those who aren’t members of the club. Rules that are likely decided in the lounge of Scalia Law School and the conservative circles around it. For this court, “settled law” isn’t so settled after all.
That’s how it’s going to be until the other two branches of government decide to challenge it.
The past week seems to have packed in a month’s worth of news. Markos and Kerry tackle it all, from Joe Biden’s big announcement to Tucker Carlson’s early retirement from Fox News.