When Supreme Court justices speak at public universities across the country, they often travel in style — and, at times, at taxpayer expense.
The justices’ travel perks have included private plane trips, blocs of fancy hotel rooms and VIP dinners where they rub elbows with large-dollar university donors.
Those findings come from a new report by the nonpartisan advocacy group Fix the Court that looks at what public universities pay for a visit by a Supreme Court justice.
Supreme Court justices fill out annual financial disclosures that list when a private entity or school gives them more than $390 in meals, lodging or transportation. But those reports don’t include dollar amounts. To get that, Fix the Court filed public records requests with individual universities where the justices spoke or taught.
“Given that basic transparency measures are anathema to the Supreme Court and its justices, we must use every available tool to ensure the nine are not flouting ethical standards,” the group’s executive director, Gabe Roth, said in a statement.
Over a third of the justices’ events at colleges and universities since 2015 were held at public institutions, raising concerns about the cost of some of those events at public universities.
Justice Clarence Thomas appears to have taken the University of Florida’s private plane when he traveled there for a week to co-teach a property law class in 2016, according the report. The records obtained by Fix the Court didn’t list a cost for those flights, but the group estimated the cost at $3,800 per roundtrip.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor flew commercial when she gave the University of Rhode Island’s commencement speech in 2016, but her roundtrip flights from Washington, D.C., to Providence, R.I., still cost more than $1,000. Once in Providence, Sotomayor, her security detail and some of her family friends stayed in a bloc of between five and 11 hotel rooms at The Break, a boutique hotel in Narragansett that advertises rooms at about $200 to $250 a night.
It’s not clear whether Sotomayor or her family friends may have reimbursed the University of Rhode Island for some of those expenses. Any money justices reimburse organizations are not listed on financial disclosures.
When Justice Stephen Breyer spoke at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2016 as part of its Maverick Speakers Series, his lecture was preceded by a private VIP dinner that cost $500 a plate. “I hope this is not a fundraiser as the Justice cannot participate in any fundraising event,” Justice Breyer’s assistant, Toni R. Daluge, wrote to university staff before the event.
In a follow-up email, Lynn T. Waters, the university’s vice president of communications, assured Daluge that any money raised would “go toward covering costs of this particular event.”
Supreme Court justices have few formal limits outside the annual financial disclosure requirement. Other federal judges are bound by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, which places strict limits on honorariums, gifts and political activity. But the code does not apply to Supreme Court justices.
The justices have, at times, said that they will abide by the code nonetheless. Fix the Court did find that Supreme Court staff often told university officials that the justices could not participate in fundraisers, as Breyer’s assistant did.
But justices have drawn fire for actions that would run afoul of the code in the past — including for speeches to groups of conservative donors and negative comments about political candidates.
The Supreme Court, like Congress and most of the White House, is also exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act, which requires executive branch agencies to make their records publicly available.
Supreme Court justices’ financial disclosures are also less frequent and detailed than those for members of Congress.
“Much of what we uncovered would be divulged under the disclosure rules for most state and federal officials, which the federal judiciary has avoided to this point,” Roth said in a statement. “Instead, we’re left wondering how often the justices are behaving unethically.”