U.S. Supreme Court

2 SCOTUS justices agree to amend financial disclosures after Fix the Court asks questions

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U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor agreed to amend their financial disclosure forms after the court transparency group Fix the Court raised questions about their apparent failure to list some reimbursements for a few their trips.

The trips were made to public colleges and universities for appearances or teaching. Fix the Court obtained specifics after sending records requests to 19 public colleges and universities where Supreme Court justices taught or appeared. Thirteen provided documents for an affordable fee.

The university records showed that justices were accepting “expensive perks” when they appeared at universities in the form of transportation, hotel and security costs, according to the nonpartisan group. Fix the Court summarized the findings in a March 24 press release and more detailed report published the same day.

The justices themselves are not subject to freedom of information laws, although they file financial disclosure forms listing reimbursed trips costing more than $390. Specific dollar amounts are not required.

Justices would have to reveal more specifics with passage of the Judicial Travel Accountability Act, a bill introduced in October 2019 that has Fix the Court’s backing.

“Our findings underscore the court’s need for ethics reform and increased transparency,” Fix the Court said in its report. “The creation of a Supreme Court Code of Conduct or gift and travel guidelines akin to those set out in the bipartisan Judicial Travel Accountability Act could set the record straight and alleviate any appearances of impropriety.”

As for Sotomayor, the group said it was “fairly clear” that the University of Rhode Island paid more than $1,000 for the justice’s round-trip flight for a commencement speech in 2016 and for a block of rooms in her name that were mostly booked for security staffers. But the reimbursement was not listed on disclosure forms.

As for Thomas, the justice included on his disclosures the income he made teaching in 2018 at the law schools of the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia, but he did not report whether the schools paid for his transportation, food and lodging.

In addition, the report said, the University of Florida Levin College of Law offered a private plane to Thomas, although it’s not entirely clear that he accepted the offer.

The report also said Justice Stephen G. Breyer apparently attended a $500-per-plate dinner before he appeared at the University of Texas in December 2016. University staff assured a Breyer assistant that the price merely recovered costs of the event. But, according to Fix the Court, the high price “would suggest the event was a fundraiser, which federal judges and justices are prohibited from attending.”

Supreme Court Public Information Officer Kathleen Arberg told Fix the Court that Sotomayor and Thomas will amend their financial disclosure reports to include omitted reimbursements.

She did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s request for comment about possible use of the private plane and the costly dinner.

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