I thought this week I’d be writing about the Supreme Court because we are right at the end of the Court’s annual term and there are two big “religious freedom” decisions yet to be announced. There is the decision about the Postal Service employee who doesn’t want to work on Sundays, which could have much broader religion-in-the-workplace implications than just about how he spends his Sunday mornings.
There is also the web designer who doesn’t want to have to design wedding websites for LGBTQ couples because…the Bible. This one gets into the realm of artistic expression and free speech. So we will see if “my personal religious beliefs outweigh everything else” keeps its winning streak going in the Supreme Court next week.
However, the Supreme Court is in the news anyway! We have a new billionaire providing free luxury travel to a new Supreme Court Justice who absolutely should have recused himself from later cases involving the billionaire and failed to do so. I first realized transparency at the Supreme Court was an important issue for the secular community last year when Politico reported that there was an organized effort by a conservative religious organization to influence Justices on issues like same sex marriage and abortion.
By organized I mean they got a townhouse across the street from the Court for an office, donated to the Supreme Court Historical Society which held events where they met justices, and then brought people in from around the country to go to dinner with those justices at nice restaurants. The idea was to provide “an ecosystem of support for conservative justices.” It became clear that we need to know who is lobbying Supreme Court Justices and that means better gift and travel reporting requirements for them. And better reporting requirements might actually discourage some of this.
Better reporting requirements would be accomplished by Congress passing the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act so we began advocating for it at our March fly-in. Then in April we learned all about Clarence Thomas’s billionaire-paid vacations and payments for his young relative’s private school tuition. The justification for accepting all this was that the real estate billionaire hadn’t been involved in any case before the court. A better way to put that is he hadn’t been involved in any case before the court yet.
Justice Alito cannot make that distinction. In 2008 he accepted a free flight on a private jet to an exclusive fishing lodge in Alaska from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, according to ProPublica. Justice Alito did not disclose the travel gift as any government employee is legally required to do (and very few federal employees would be allowed to accept it). Then two years later Mr. Singer’s hedge fund asked the Supreme Court for help collecting money from Argentina. The fund had bought debt from Argentina in 2001 when the government was in default. When the fiscal situation improved Argentina settled with other creditors at a discount but the hedge fund demanded full repayment. Argentina refused. Mr. Singer couldn’t exactly send a guy to go break Argentina’s thumbs so instead he went to the court system.
The Supreme Court was asked nine times to intervene and declined to do so eight times, in some cases benefitting the hedge fund. In 2014 The Court finally took up one of the appeals and ruled in favor of the hedge fund 7-1. Justice Alito did not recuse himself and voted for the hedge fund. ProPublica said the private jet to Alaska would have cost $100,000 each way but Justice Alito saw no need to report it or to say “I need to recuse myself from this case.”
Congress can and should establish a Supreme Court code of ethics, develop a recusal process, and require better reporting of gifts and travel. The good news is that the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last week on the bill that would accomplish this and Senator Schumer says the Senate will take up the bill next month. I’m scheduling Senate meetings. If you haven’t yet, you can ask your Senators to support this bill with our Action Alert here. If they are already supporting it they will get a thank you message. Let’s make sure Supreme Court Justices are taking the family car the next time they go on vacation.