Supreme Court justices and donors mingle at campus visits

Analysis on Litigation

When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas headlined a 2017 program at McLennan Community College in Texas, his hosts had more than a speech in mind. Working with the prominent conservative lawyer Ken Starr, school officials crafted a guest list for a dinner at the home of a wealthy Texas businessman, hoping an audience with Thomas would be a reward for school patrons -– and an inducement to prospective donors.

Before Justice Elena Kagan visited the University of Colorado’s law school in 2019, one official in Boulder suggested a “larger donor to staff ratio” for a dinner with her. After Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmed she would attend a 2017 question-and-answer session at Clemson University and a private luncheon, officials there made sure to invite $1 million-plus donors to the South Carolina college.

The Associated Press obtained tens of thousands of pages of emails and other documents that reveal the extent to which public colleges and universities have seen visits by justices as opportunities to generate donations -– regularly putting justices in the room with influential donors, including some whose industries have had interests before the court.

The documents also reveal that justices spanning the court’s ideological divide have lent the prestige of their positions to partisan activity, headlining speaking events with prominent politicians, or advanced their own personal interests, such as sales of their books, through college visits.

The conduct would likely be prohibited if done by lower court federal judges. But the Supreme Court’s definition of banned fundraising is so narrow -– simply an event that raises more than it costs or where guests are asked for donations -– that it does not account for soliciting contributors later while reminding them of the special access they were afforded.

“The justices should be aware that people are selling access to them,” said University of Virginia law professor Amanda Frost, an ethics expert. “I don’t think they are naive, but they certainly have been putting themselves in situations where people can credibly claim, ’I’m giving you access,’ or ‘I’m going to fundraise off my claimed closeness or access.’ And that is a problem.”

In a statement responding to questions, the Supreme Court said: “The Court routinely asks event organizers to confirm that an event at which a Justice will speak is not a fundraiser, and it provides a definition of ‘fundraiser’ in order to avoid misunderstandings.”

“The Court then follows up with event organizers to elicit further information as appropriate,” the statement said. “The Court’s practice has been useful: Justices have declined to be featured at events even though event organizers expressly told Chambers that the events were not fundraisers, following additional inquiry by the Court that confirmed them to be fundraisers.”

Still, the revelations come at a fraught moment for the court, which by constitutional design settles disputes that set fundamental boundaries in American life. The court’s integrity is being questioned because of concerns about ethics abuses by justices and polarizing court rulings, including last year’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. A 2022 survey put trust in the court at a 50-year low, with just 18% expressing a great level of confidence.

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