WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Supreme Court justices traveled the globe, received tens of thousands of dollars in book royalties and held tens of millions in personal assets in 2013, according to annual financial disclosure reports released today and obtained by the Coalition for Court Transparency, an alliance of media and legal organizations that advocate 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 reports were made available to the public, either by mail or by visiting 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 at http://bit.ly/2013SCOTUSfinancials.
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.
“The media have the right to know about any activities public officials engage in that may influence how they conduct the people’s business,” said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association and Foundation. “That our nation’s top judges make it purposely harder to obtain this information – especially ‘given the Internet’ – does not conform to 21st century expectations of transparency from public officials.”
“Taxpayers, and all Americans, deserve an open and transparent Supreme Court,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. “There is absolutely no reason why the justices can’t file their annual disclosure reports in an open and timely manner. The highest court in the United States should be the leader in the effort to build a more transparency federal judiciary.”
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 e-mail 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 highranking 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.