With ProPublica and other publications uncovering a slew of ethical lapses by conservative justices, summer 2023 has quickly become the summer of Supreme Court scandals. But the Associated Press has apparently been doing its own digging and, earlier this week, published multiple stories about both Republican- and Democratic-appointed judges that it said were the result of “reviewing tens of thousands of pages of documents from more than 100 public records requests.”
One story noted that several sitting justices have taken all-expenses-paid summer teaching gigs at law schools in desirable locations like Italy and Hawaii. Another outlined how justices have mingled with donors at colleges and universities. A final story recounts how Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court staff coordinated the details of book appearances, including discussing ordering copies of the books for attendees to purchase.
“Sotomayor’s staff has often prodded public institutions that have hosted the justice to buy her memoir or children’s books, works that have earned her at least $3.7 million since she joined the court in 2009,” the AP wrote. But the story doesn’t say whether the schools hosting her were left with the bill for any unsold copies, as Press Watch editor Dan Froomkin noted.
So it’s insane for conservative lawmakers and activists to act like Sotomayor’s actions even come close to the ethical lapses of Justice Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, or the now-deceased Antonin Scalia. (By the way, the AP reported that Sotomayor refused an invitation to dine with donors of the University of Hawaii during a 2012 visit. “No, the Justice will not do a private dinner at a ‘club’ with Mr. Boas who is a donor of the Law School,” an aide wrote to the school, referring to longtime benefactor Frank Boas.)
And the suggestion that the justice’s staff personally helped her earn millions by pressing schools and libraries to order books is also misleading. Only many, many paragraphs later does the AP say this:
A person close to Sotomayor, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the justice’s book dealings, said that Sotomayor “has not and will not profit from sales” of her memoir beyond the $3.1 million advance that she received and that doing so would “require purchases of hundreds of thousands of additional books, more than double the purchases to date.”
This isn’t to say the court doesn’t need a formal code of conduct to prevent justices from using their staff for personal pursuits...because they absolutely do. In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on July 20 on a bill that would create such a code and enhance both financial disclosure rules and recusal requirements. Maybe this code of conduct should even say that justices can’t write books until they retire from the court—one less appearance of impropriety to worry about! (J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge, told the AP: “I have never believed that Supreme Court justices should write books to supplement their judicial incomes.”)
But still, Sotomayor’s staff coordinating book orders is nothing like Thomas’ staff getting questionable Venmo payments from lawyers who have argued Supreme Court cases.
So, call me when a Democratic-appointed justice is caught accepting free luxury vacations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with Democratic activists who have business before the court. Call me when a liberal activist megadonor buys the house where a liberal justice’s parent lives and doesn’t charge them rent. Or when a justice (allegedly) leaks the outcome of a case to activists. Finally, you have permission to blow up my phone when a Democratic justice’s spouse tries to overturn an election—and the justice still hears cases about the said election.
But if this Sotomayor news means Republicans will vote for a bill to impose a code of ethics, helping it to actually pass, then great.