The Plus and Minuses of Supreme Court Justice Ethics

Supreme Court

            Pearl River      Surely, we can agree that the Supreme Court is a hot mess.  On one hand, none of us know how they might sock it to us from one decision to the next.  Sometimes they even surprise us and remember that civil and voting rights still matter in Alabama.  On the other hand, even if we’re not sure how they might see the law, we should all feel lucky that their main job is not to make decisions about ethics, because a drumbeat of reports has established that they are unanimous in circling the wagons and tone-deaf on the issue of perks and privileges that come with their lifetime gigs.

I stumbled on two Washington Post columns that almost perfectly outline the gulf in how the Justices approach these questions,

One was by Alexandra Petri, who I read often, because not only is she often spot on about the issues of the day, but she’s frequently hilarious, as she was in a recent column entitled, “The Supreme Court Lifestyle is for Me!  I can’t remember the last time I made mi companera listen to me read the entire column to her on a Saturday morning.  Here are some excerpts:

But I see now that I was wrong to rule out this career. I believe the amount of law you need to know was greatly exaggerated. Supreme Court justice is the lifestyle for me. ProPublica, which, as I understand it, is a publication dedicated entirely to concocting ludicrous fantasy vacations I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams and then revealing that Justice Clarence Thomas has been on them (among other perks), has just revealed even more luxury vacations that Thomas has taken, with the assurance that this is “almost certainly an undercount” of the luxurious, undisclosed travel he has received. Now that is a disclaimer! (Most Supreme Court justices take only one or two vacations per year. Vacations Thomas, who takes 3,800 annually, is an outlier and should not have been counted.)

I did not know about all the perks! I did not know you got assigned a personal billionaire (or several) and got to live the lifestyle of one of America’s wealthier car dealers. I did not know you would not only get to travel with them, be serenaded with their custom you-inspired songs (is this a perk?) and get to visit their humble, rustic lodges but also get to travel without them, in their planes. Nor did I realize that the benefits would not stop there!

Exclusive golf club access! Sports tickets in fancy boxes! All the football you can eat! RVs! Yachts! Helicopters! It’s a miracle the justices manage to take any rights away from anyone! They are always off on vacation somewhere, on someone else’s dime — indeed, I would not call this living on someone else’s dime. There is no way a dime covers all this!

You can’t miss the point, can you?  On the other hand, there was another guest column from Margaret McMullan who is an author and former professor of creative writing living in Pass Christian, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast not far from New Orleans.  She wrote about “How I ‘bribed’ a justice to take a no-expenses-paid trip to Mississippi,” with her experience in inviting Justice Sotomayer to read pieces of her children’s book to a crowd of kids there.  Here she goes, as she begins recounting first her conversations with the Justice’s staff:


…a few more questions — details about flight connections, book-signing and so on. I said we would be happy to upgrade her flight. Nope, the publisher was handling her flight. I said we’d be happy to upgrade her hotel room. Nope, the justice was fine with a Marriott, plus her security detail was familiar with the layout.

So far, so good.

Subsequent emails and phone conversations were similar. No, Le said, the justice did not need us to provide lunch or dinner. No, she could not accept the $250 stipend.

Did Le urge me to buy more books? No. She did ask whether we wanted any of the copies of “My Beloved World” to be in Spanish. In fact, we did, and I hadn’t thought to order them.

There very well might be a culture of poor ethical conduct in the Supreme Court, but there is no moral equivalency between justices accepting rides on private jets to vacation with friends who had cases before the court and Sotomayor talking about her books and her life to a crowd of mesmerized young readers.

The standard royalty rate for authors is less than 10 percent of the sales price. I don’t know anything about Sotomayor’s deal with her publishers, but 10 percent would make her cut of the 1,500 books our foundation purchased approximately $2,250 — for which she had to fly to Mississippi and give two presentations. During the hottest month of the year.

You be the judge.