Many justices are frequent expenses-paid travelers, a practice some court scholars say is a minor matter, given that many of the trips involve public talks that help demystify the court. Others say the trips could potentially create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
WASHINGTON — Antonin Scalia was the longest-tenured justice on the current Supreme Court and the country’s most prominent constitutionalist. But another quality also set him apart: Among the court’s members, he was the most frequent traveler, to spots around the globe, on trips paid for by private sponsors.
When Scalia died two weeks ago, he was staying, again for free, at a West Texas hunting lodge owned by a businessman whose company had recently had a matter before the Supreme Court.
Though that trip has brought new attention to the justice’s penchant for travel, it was in addition to the 258 subsidized trips that he took from 2004 to 2014. Scalia went on at least 23 privately funded trips in 2014 alone to such places as Hawaii, Ireland and Switzerland, giving speeches, participating in moot-court events or teaching classes. A few weeks before his death, he was in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Supreme Court travel
A look at the numbers of privately paid trips taken by Supreme Court justices from 2004-14, ranked top to bottom by frequency of travel per year.
258 trips in 11 years
23.5 trips per year
185 trips in 11 years
16.8 trips per year
67 trips in 5 years
13.4 trips per year
132 trips in 11 years
12.0 trips per year
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
117 trips in 11 years
10.6 trips per year
83 trips in 9 years
10.1 trips per year
33 trips in 4 years
8.3 trips per year
86 trips in 11 years
7.8 trips per year
Chief Justice John Roberts
48 trips in 10 years
4.8 trips per year
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Many justices are frequent expenses-paid travelers, a practice some court scholars say is a minor matter, given that many of the trips involve public talks that help demystify the court. But others say the trips could potentially create the appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly when the organizations are known for their conservative or liberal views. Some groups at times use the presence of a Supreme Court justice as a way to pull in members or other paying guests.
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“I am worried about the public perception of gratitude, even if there is no effect on your behavior,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor at the New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics. “And the greater the luxury, the greater the risk of public suspicion.”
Ethical standards bar judges from accepting gifts from anyone with a matter currently before the court. But those guidelines presented no barrier to John Poindexter, who invited Scalia to stay at his West Texas ranch.
Poindexter owns J.B. Poindexter & Co., a manufacturing firm based in Houston with more than 4,000 employees. One of his companies, the MIC Group, was a defendant in an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee who unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court last year.
Poindexter, according to a former general manager at the ranch, is also a leader in a group known as the International Order of St. Hubertus, a worldwide organization of hunters, as, apparently, were several other guests during Scalia’s visit. The Washington Post first reported the guests’ ties to the hunting group.
Gillers and other legal experts said they saw nothing wrong with Scalia’s accepting a free room at Poindexter’s lodge. While the Ethics in Government Act, adopted after Watergate, requires high-level federal employees, including judges, to fill out disclosure reports for reimbursements worth more than $335, the visit to the ranch might not have required a formal disclosure, because accommodations provided by a private individual are exempt under current rules.
But Gabe Roth, executive director of an organization called Fix the Court, said the Supreme Court needed a formal vetting process for privately funded trips, similar to the one used by Congress, where ethics committees sign off on trips before lawmakers take them.
“This is just part of the pattern of a lack of transparency from the high court,” he said. “It is impossible to tell if there is a specific breach of any conflict-of-interest laws.”
After Scalia, the second most active traveler on the court is Justice Stephen Breyer, who took 185 privately paid trips from 2004 to 2014, according to a database built by the Center for Responsive Politics, based on individual reports filed by the justices.
Chief Justice John Roberts, based on a yearly average, had the fewest of these privately funded trips: 48 from 2005 to 2014, the last year for which records are available.
The destinations often are luxurious, including the Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic, where Justice Samuel Alito was listed as a speaker for an event last February, or Zurich, where Scalia traveled at least three times on privately funded trips.
In 2011, a liberal advocacy group, Common Cause, questioned whether Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas should have disqualified themselves from participating in the landmark Citizens United case on campaign finance because they had attended a political retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., sponsored by Charles Koch, a conservative financier. Koch funds groups that could benefit from the ruling.
Legislation is pending in the House and the Senate that would require the Supreme Court to create a formal ethics system, beyond the Ethics in Government Act, similar to the one that governs actions of all other federal judges. That system is known as the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.
Roberts has argued that the Supreme Court, even though it generally abides by this judicial ethics code, is not obligated to do so. It restricts how much judges can be paid for private travel, and limits other activities outside the court, such as allowing private organizations to use “the prestige of judicial office” for fundraising.
“The questionable activities of some of our Supreme Court justices have been well documented,” including “participating in political functions,” U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said in explaining why she introduced the legislation last year. She was referring to the trips by Scalia and Thomas to the Koch events.
Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said society could benefit when justices — who are paid about $250,000 a year, far less than they would earn in private practice — leave Washington, D.C., to speak about how the court works.
“It makes the opaque court more transparent and explains what is going on,” he said.