Justices Must Disclose Travel and Gifts Under New Rules
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices will be required to disclose more of their activities, including some free trips, air travel and other types of gifts, according to rules adopted earlier this month.
Under the new rules, justices and other federal judges must report travel by private jet, as well as stays at commercial properties, such as hotels, resorts or hunting lodges.
The move comes as members of Congress have called for the justices, who have long faced less stringent reporting requirements, to be held to ethics standards similar to those for the executive and legislative branches.
“To the extent this becomes a model for further activity for the Judicial Conference to clean up the Supreme Court mess, I think that’s significant,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island who sits on the Judiciary Committee’s panel that oversees federal courts.
Some advocates pushing for greater transparency on the court cautioned that the rules would be hard to enforce and that it would be nearly impossible to know whether a justice had failed to disclose a trip, flight or other perk.
“The problem with any sort of transparency rule within the judiciary is the question of enforcement, the question of accountability,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an organization critical of the court’s transparency.
Without additional requirements, including a quicker turnaround for disclosing travel and gifts and penalties for failures to comply, the new measures are likely to have a limited effect, Mr. Roth said.
Understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s Term
A race to the right. After a series of judicial bombshells in June that included eliminating the right to abortion, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives returned to the bench in October — and there are few signs that the court’s rightward shift is slowing. Here’s a closer look at the term:
Affirmative action. The marquee cases of the term are challenges to the race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. While the court has repeatedly upheld affirmative-action programs, a six-justice conservative supermajority may put more than 40 years of precedent at risk.
Voting rights. The role race may play in government decision-making also figures in a case that is a challenge under the Voting Rights Act to an Alabama electoral map that a lower court had said diluted the power of Black voters. The case is a major new test of the Voting Rights Act in a court that has gradually limited the law’s reach in other contexts.
Discrimination against gay couples. The justices heard an appeal from a web designer who objects to providing services for same-sex marriages in a case that pits claims of religious freedom against laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court last considered the issue in 2018 in a similar dispute, but failed to yield a definitive ruling.
Tech companies’ legal shield. The court is reviewing a sweeping law that prevents tech companies such as Facebook and Google from being held responsible for the content posted on their site. The case could have potentially seismic ramifications for social media platforms and alter the very structure of the internet.
Student loan cancellation challenges. The justices heard arguments about President Biden’s plan to forgive an estimated $400 billion in federal student loan debt. Conservative states have called the plan an abuse of executive authority. The court is exploring whether the states are even entitled to sue.
“The bar is so low that you can get credit for doing the bare minimum,” he said. “Small but significant is where I’m at.”
The new rules, which went into effect March 14, were adopted by a financial disclosure committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts.
At a meeting in January, the committee discussed whether judges and justices would be required to file disclosures when they are hosted at commercial properties, such as resorts, according to a letter to Mr. Whitehouse from Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which provides support for the court system.
By federal law, justices must file forms each year disclosing financial ties, including gifts. However, the rules for travel that is considered “personal hospitality” were not clearly defined, including for stays at commercial properties or trips in which a third-party pays.
It is unclear precisely how oversight and enforcement would work for the justices. A court spokeswoman declined to comment.
The most common enforcement mechanism stems from the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, which describes “misconduct” as “knowingly violating requirements for financial disclosure.” If an allegation arose, the chief judge of a circuit could review it and determine whether a punishment is warranted, but the act does not apply to the Supreme Court.
Questions around travel by the justices have persisted for years, particularly since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. Justice Scalia died while on a hunting trip at a lodge in West Texas owned by a businessman involved in a case that the court declined to hear in 2015.
Justice Scalia, who had been staying at the ranch for free, had taken more than 250 subsidized trips from 2004 to 2014.
More on the U.S. Supreme Court
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- A Spirited Debate: The justices differed about whether a chew toy for dogs that looks like a bottle of Jack Daniel’s violated the distiller’s trademark rights or was protected by the First Amendment.
- Ducking Two Big Cases?: Recent orders suggest that the justices are thinking of dismissing consequential cases involving the role of state legislatures in conducting federal elections and a pandemic-era immigration measure.
In 2014 alone, he went on at least 23 privately funded trips, including to Ireland, Switzerland and Hawaii.
Justice Scalia had been invited to the ranch by John Poindexter, owner of a Texas manufacturing firm. One of Mr. Poindexter’s companies, the Mic Group, had been the defendant in an age discrimination lawsuit by a former employee who had unsuccessfully sought review by the Supreme Court the year before.
But Justice Scalia was hardly alone in accepting privately paid trips. From 2004 to 2014, Justice Stephen G. Breyer took 185 such trips, according to a database by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The issue of privately paid travel also emerged in 2011, a year after the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections. A liberal advocacy group, Common Cause, argued that Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas should have recused themselves from hearing the case because they traveled to a political conference in Palm Springs, Calif., sponsored by the businessman Charles G. Koch, one of the biggest donors to Republicans.
Legal experts greeted this month’s move with cautious optimism.
“In my world of transparency and judicial ethics, what we had until now was little more than a joke,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor emeritus at the New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics. “The rules were very lax and tolerated circumvention, and now we’ve taken a giant step away from that.”
However, he said there was still a long way to go toward transparency and accountability, pointing to the lag time between when a gift is received and when it must be reported. Justices have until May 15 of the year after receiving a gift before they must report it.
In theory, if a justice “knowingly and willfully” failed to comply with the rules, the attorney general could bring a case. In practice, though, he said, that has never happened. He added that it was also impossible to know how individual justices would respond to the stricter rules.
“There’s no enforcement mechanism at the Supreme Court,” he said. “It will be up to each justice.”