U.S. Supreme Court justices traveled the globe, spoke at symposia on bankruptcy and baseball and collectively held assets in the tens of millions of dollars, according to annual financial disclosure reports released today and obtained by the Coalition for Court Transparency. The coalition is an alliance of media and legal organizations — including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — that advocates for a more open and accountable Supreme Court.
Despite recent calls from the coalition to release these documents online — as is done by the president, vice president, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate — only paper copies of the 2013 reports are available to the public, either by mail or picked up at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington.
“Today, given the Internet,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2014 majority opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC, “disclosure offers much more robust protections against corruption.” As such, since the judiciary itself is reluctant to post disclosure reports online, the coalition has done so here.
Further, the justices’ reports were released two weeks later than last year and more than a month after disclosure reports from top executive and legislative branch officials became public. By statute, the financial disclosures of high-ranking federal officials are due by May 15 to their respective ethics offices.
Prior to the release of the reports, the coalition had been in contact with Judge John Bates, the director of the Administrative Office, and Judge Joseph McKinley Jr., chairman of the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure, to encourage the federal judiciary to place the justices’ — and all federal judges’ — annual disclosure reports online.
This correspondence has been productive, and the coalition has requested that the issue of online disclosures be placed on the Judicial Conference’s agenda at its September meeting. Additionally, the Administrative Office did use email earlier this week when it notified the coalition of the time at which the paper reports would be ready for pickup.
Annual financial disclosure requirements are part of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, which compels high-ranking federal officials, including Supreme Court justices, to publicize their personal financial interests in order to identify and prevent conflicts of interest and ensure that they are following their respective ethical guidelines.
The reports present a more complete picture of the justices’ lives beyond the bench and offer clues as to why they recuse themselves in individual cases, when they decide to accept a case or at argument. Currently, the justices refuse to explain their reasons for recusal, leaving the public to make an educated guess based on information presented in disclosure reports, such as financial holdings, as to what may pose a conflict of interests.
About the Coalition for Court Transparency
The Coalition for Court Transparency is an alliance of 18 media and legal organizations from across the political spectrum that advocate for a more open and accountable U.S. Supreme Court. In order to increase the public’s access to important legal issues that affect all Americans, the coalition supports putting cameras in the courtroom to broadcast oral arguments. The coalition is also supportive of other pro-transparency measures, including live audio-streaming of hearings and posting the justices’ annual financial disclosure reports online. Learn more and see a list of our members at OpenSCOTUS.com. For more informaion about the coalition, contact Gabe Roth, 312-545-8556, GabeR4@gmail.com.
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.