In a modern governing climate that sees members of Congress routinely amass large personal fortunes while allegedly “representing their constituents,” Supreme Court Justices appear to have significantly upped their money-making game. “Ketanji Brown Jackson’s new book deal adds to what has become a phenomenon at the U.S. Supreme Court: Justices looking to craft their own images and perhaps score a hefty payday along the way,” Bloomberg News reported Jan. 8.
Supreme Court – Superior Revenue Enhancer
Ethics rules prevent justices from earning more than around $30,000 a year in outside income. Yet for some reason, book earnings don’t count towards that reasonable total. To say the loophole is being exploited would be a gross understatement.
Bloomberg paints a picture of an accepted business model for the High Court that should alarm Americans keen on keeping the blindfold over Lady Justice’s eyes:
“Jackson’s memoir, Lovely One, will tell her life’s story, from her childhood in Miami to her confirmation last year as the first Black female justice, according to her publisher, Random House.
It could also make Jackson the fourth current justice to get a book advance of at least $1 million, joining Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett. Although Random House didn’t disclose the terms of Jackson’s deal, Barrett reportedly secured a $2 million advance from a different imprint at Penguin Random House LLC in 2021.”
This is deeply concerning on many levels, not the least of which is controversy surrounding monster book deals for high-profile politicians. Barack and Michelle Obama scored a whopping $65 million deal with Penguin Random House as they departed the White House in 2017. Industry sources acknowledged the package made no sense from a business standpoint.
“Still other insiders said that fathoming the math is impossible, since the sum PRH paid is itself so far from the norm,” Publishers Weekly reported at the time. “As one foreign rights associate put it: ‘We’re all so blown away by the numbers on this deal that the sky’s the limit, right?’ She went on, ‘I’ve rarely seen seven-figure deals abroad, but these numbers are new to the game.’”
All kinds of ugly insinuations come into play when a politician who still wields enormous influence is granted such a market-defying contract. But consider the implications when judges are involved.
Penguin Random House was thwarted by a federal judge in 2022 when it attempted to merge with another mega-publisher, Simon & Schuster. If approved, the merger would have given PRH a crushing dominance over all other competitors in its field. The corporate behemoth condemned the ruling and vowed to vigorously pursue an appeal.
Now imagine such an appeal going all the way to the Supreme Court. And then reflect that several of the recent lavish book deals bestowed upon sitting justices have come from PRH. Neil Gorsuch “published a book with Penguin Random House in 2019 titled A Republic, If You Can Keep It, and reported earning $325,000 in 2019 and $100,000 in 2020 in royalty income from the publisher,” Time reports. Sonia Sotomayor “reported earning $115,593 in book royalties from Penguin Random House last year, with whom she has released multiple children’s books.” It may not be as financially out of whack as the Obamas’ $65 million windfall, but is there really a clamoring for Sotomayor children’s books in America today?
Taking Sides and Cashing In?
Avoiding the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest and other extremely high standards of judicial ethics used to be the norm in America. Bloomberg’s Timothy O’Brien noted in 2021:
“Some court scandals from earlier eras seem relatively quaint today. Abe Fortas was forced off the court in 1969 for accepting a $20,000 annuity from a Wall Street financier earlier in his career. William O. Douglas was criticized for accepting $350 for a magazine article he wrote about folk music. William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote books for modest sums and nobody complained.”
Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, found himself at the center of a yearlong House Ethics Committee investigation in the late ‘80s over proceeds from a book – and the friends who tried to “help” him didn’t even bother to hide the nature of their purchases, The New York Time’s reporting revealed. “I was just trying to make a contribution to Jim’s income,” explained S. Gene Payte, a developer and friend of Wright’s. “And I couldn’t give him any money. There are rules against that. So I bought his book.” Another friend admitted he bought $1,000 worth of Wright’s books to “go beyond” the $1,000 contribution he had already made to the campaign fund.
It was Newt Gingrich – the Republican who became House Speaker after Wright – who gets the credit for outing his colleague from across the aisle. Somewhat ironically, Gingrich himself faced a similar challenge with a book of his own in the ‘90s and had to give up a $4.5 million advance.
Times have changed.
“In 2016, Chief Justice John Roberts disclosed he had sold $250,000-$500,000 worth of Microsoft Corp. stock during the previous year,” O’Brien wrote. “He sold the shares prior to hearing a case involving the company’s lucrative gaming system, but that wasn’t disclosed until well after the fact. He joined in the court’s denial of an appeal in a case involving Texas Instruments Inc. in 2016 while still holding $100,001-$250,000 worth of that company’s stock.”
Perhaps the rising partisanship that surrounds the Court more than ever is part of the problem. Whether red or blue, neither political faction wants to see “their” justices dinged by accusations of impropriety. What’s more, there’s money to be made in being the “conservative” or “liberal” knight clad in black robe.
“It’s bad enough that the justices predominantly speak to interest groups that serve their perceived teams, with conservative justices appearing at [the Federalist Society] events and the liberals at the American Constitution Society with almost no crossover,” Gabe Roth, executive director at a leftist organization called Fix the Court, said last June, Courthouse News reports. “But to make matters worse, all three Trump-appointed justices are teaching at their teams’ law schools, namely hard-right George Mason and Notre Dame, which is not a great look from a supposedly apolitical institution.”
Roth may have a progressive axe to grind, but that does not mean what he is saying here is wrong.
The once-cherished notion of a US Supreme Court being above the fray of political rancor as it loftily protects the Constitution and rule of law is rapidly declining by the day. And as justices become more publicly partisan, they are also taking on another chief marker of the elected official: using their position to stuff their pockets.
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