Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts really should take Sen. Dick Durbin up on his suggestion about imposing some kind of ethics accountability on the court. In its absence, all the big media outlets are chasing the increasingly hot story of the luxury trips and high-priced gifts Supreme Court justices have received from their very political friends and whether the justices reported them. Thanks, Justice Clarence Thomas, for that gift to journalism!
Witness the story CNN reexamined Thursday about Justice Samuel Alito’s victory tour last year following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision he authored ending federal abortion rights protections. Alito’s trip to Rome wasn’t a secret; plenty of reports about his obnoxious and caustic speech followed. The details of how he got there weren’t the focus, but in the wake of ProPublica’s new reporting on Alito’s luxury fishing trip paid for by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer, CNN took a second look at Alito’s jaunt to Rome.
The tab for that trip was picked up by Notre Dame University’s Religious Liberty Initiative. The purpose of the trip was to give Alito an opportunity to gloat “at a gala hosted at a palace in the heart of the city.” Because you certainly couldn’t celebrate the end of half a century of women’s bodily autonomy at the Hilton in Arlington, Virginia. Alito made sure to start his speech by thanking the sponsors for the “warm hospitality” he and his wife were enjoying, including their hotel that “looks out over the Roman Forum.”
The director of the Religious Liberty Initiative, Stephanie Barclay, confirmed to CNN that the organization had paid for everything. “Like the other speakers and panelists at the summit, Justice Alito’s transportation and lodging were covered and of course, he had meals provided like all attendees,” she said. “Unlike other speakers, no honorarium was given.” Well, then, everything is fine, right?
Except for the part about how the Initiative is consistently involved in cases that come before the court, including Dobbs. It has filed numerous “friend-of-the-court” briefs in the three years since it was founded on “religious liberty” cases.
Alito split a whole bunch of hairs justifying this trip in a statement to CNN, explaining why there couldn’t be any conflict of interest here. “My understanding is that Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative has a number of components, only one of which is a clinic that, like the legal clinics at many other law schools, files amicus briefs in the Supreme Court,” the statement said. “I was not invited to speak in Rome by the clinic.” See? It’s the “clinic” that has business before the court, not the organization that created it. He couldn’t possibly have a conflict in accepting the trip.
It’s the same kind of disingenuous justification Alito gave in the op-ed he wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the fishing trip, when he argued that the private jet seat he filled would have been empty if he hadn’t gone, so it couldn’t have had monetary value he needed to disclose. And like that tortured reasoning, it’s a confession. Alito knows very well there’s conflict of interest at the heart of this story.
That’s the only real difference between the Thomas and Alito stories of lavish trips. As far as we know, Thomas’s patron, Harlan Crow, hasn’t had direct business in front of the court. Thomas might have other benefactors we don’t know about, but this one doesn’t regularly come to the court with personal business. Sure, he spends lots of money on dark money groups that file briefs and help bankroll cases, but Crow himself stays out of it. Alito, on the other hand, is actively and knowingly sitting judgment on cases from his friends.
The two do have something in common, though. They’re the only two justices who have failed to file their annual financial disclosures. They both asked for extensions. That might be because the cases from this session that are pending from them are going to be as controversial and attention-grabbing as Dobbs, and they figure they can quietly file their disclosures while no one is looking. That’s not going to work now. The spotlight is only getting hotter.
Every other justice managed to file their disclosure, and were seemingly (and wisely) scrupulous about declaring things. Letting Justice Elena Kagan be their guide on ethics is a smart move. Don’t expect Alito and Thomas to follow suit, not unless they’re forced to and even then, count on them to look for the loopholes.
They absolutely should be forced to, by the way. It’s long past time that the justices have to comply with the same code of ethics every other federal judge is bound by.
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