Knee Deep in the Big Muddy, but the Roberts Court says it’ll push on
The sinkhole that is the corrupt Supreme Court grows deeper and deeper. Now Chief Justice John Roberts is also swimming in the muck with reports that he and his wife earned millions of dollars from law firms anxious to cozy up to the Court. AP

WASHINGTON—When U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts refused to testify to senators about the Supreme Court’s ethics, he justified it by citing the “separation of powers.”

But there was one other reason, investigations show, that may have made Roberts reluctant: His spouse, Jane Sullivan Roberts, works for an attorney search firm, Macrae Inc. And on past Supreme Court ethics forms, Roberts listed her company, but not the amount she earned, which the forms do not require.

News reports put her earnings as a legal recruiter over the eight years 2007-14 at $10.3 million.

And Roberts’ 2021 financial disclosure report shows Jane Roberts still gets a Macrae salary – amount undisclosed. Before joining Macrae, she was an attorney at pro-corporate law and lobbying firm Pillsbury Winthrop, and still gets deferred payments from them. The 2022 reports are due the week of June 12.

“She restructured her career to benefit from his [John Roberts’s] position,” Kendal Price, a one-time colleague at Macrae wrote in an affidavit sent to the Judicial Conference of the U.S., which received a complaint about her position, Business Insider reports. “I believe that at least some of her remarkable success as a recruiter has come because of her spouse’s position.”

Jane Roberts’ earnings put her and the Chief Justice—whose report also discloses a lot of trading in stocks and mutual funds—in the questionable ethics column, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been trying, unsuccessfully, for a decade to get Roberts to promulgate a new and tougher ethics code for the High Court. He’s refused. At a May 2 hearing, the panel’s Democratic majority served notice their patience has run out.

“Rightwing special interests have devoted hundreds of millions of dark money dollars” to cultivating the rightwing justices, including those they put on the bench, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former state Attorney General and prosecutor who has been on a one-senator crusade against influence-buying for years.

Ingredients in a noxious cocktail

“The ingredients in this noxious cocktail are creepy rightwing billionaires, phony front groups, amenable justices, large sums of money, and secrecy,” he said.

‘The court won’t even acknowledge there’s a problem,” panel chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. “Until there is an honest ethics process at the court, these messes will continue,” added Whitehouse, co-sponsor of legislation to force the justices to write an ethics code.

Meanwhile, the ethics problems continue.

Gorsuch sold a 40-acre ranch he had on the market for two years to an undisclosed buyer for nearly $2 million, the Washington Post reported. The buyer was CEO of a law firm that has since had 22 cases with business before the court. He told the paper he didn’t know Gorsuch was the seller.

All the ethics problems at the court, though, are the tip of a larger iceberg, showing the myriad ways corporate and capitalist interests cultivate the court, even when they don’t have specific cases pending before the justices.

Does the cultivation pay off? The justices deny it. To outsiders, such as the non-profit group Fix The Court, it stinks.

And workers and their allies lack such apparent clout. The court’s current 6-3 right-wing Republican-named majority so consistently rules for the corporate class and against either government regulation, worker interests, or both that former National Labor Relations Board member Craig Becker says workers’ attorneys automatically assume they’re going to lose whenever they wind up before the bench.

Understand one thing about the financial finagling exposed at the High Court. Thomas’s trips themselves, Ginni Thomas’s lobbying for the right wing—including championing the attempted Jan. 6, 2021, Trumpite coup d’état attempt, invasion and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol–Jane Roberts’ lavish pay due to John Roberts’ job, John Roberts’s securities deals and Gorsuch’s land deal in Colorado, are not, in and of themselves, technically illegal.

Not disclosing them is. That’s how lax controls on potentially corrupt capitalist influence are.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said on the campaign trail in 2020, and as she keeps repeating, “The system is rigged.” And, apparently, that includes the Supreme Court.

Thomas has come under particular scrutiny as right-wing ideologues employed spouse Ginni Thomas and her Liberty Consulting firm to gain them successful access to the Trump White House.

The lack of ethics on the High Court, which has contributed to the justices’ declining credibility with the public, goes far beyond Ginni Thomas’s clout with Trump or Clarence Thomas’s dealings with GOP big giver Harlan Crow.

That’s even though Crow lavished private plane trips overseas for both Thomases and bought Thomas’s Georgia boyhood home for an above-market price as the site for a proposed museum in the justice’s honor.

That’s also even though Thomas has spoken to the Federalist Society, a far-right legal group which concentrates on the judiciary, and whose chief, Leonard Leo, evaluated Supreme Court and lower court nominees for Trump.

Crow has no lawsuits pending before the justices, but sits on the society’s board and donates to it, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former state Attorney General and prosecutor, reports.

Surge of dark money

“Dark money surged into the Federalist Society during that period” when Leo evaluated judicial nominees for Trump, the senator adds. “Investigation would show whether all this amounted to enough business before the court to create a conflict of interest, but the Supreme Court won’t permit any investigation of its members.

Fix The Court, a non-profit group campaigning for Supreme Court reform, reports that there have been at least a dozen instances in the last seven years where the justices ruled on cases in which they had financial interest, even according to the lax disclosures on their financial forms.

And that’s not counting a leak of an upcoming Supreme Court opinion, reported by the New York Times, to another right-wing Republican, several years ago: That leak, in the Hobby Lobby case, was that the justices would let firms discriminate on the basis of religion. To this day, Justice Samuel Alito angrily denies he or his spouse leaked the essentials of that ruling during an intimate four-person dinner.

So far, Thomas leads in conflicts of interest, Fix The Court says. It’s taken about a dozen conflicts to the Judicial Conference of the U.S., which is supposed to rule on judicial ethics, but which has handled only ethics problems involving lower courts. None of the Thomas cases Fix The Court brought up involve Crow (yet). Three involve Trump, Ginni Thomas, and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. Some of the most prominent on the group’s long list:

  • “Justice Thomas did not “recuse”—back off due to conflict of interest—himself from hearing a petition trying to stop the House Select Committee on the January 6 invasion from obtaining the metadata of Arizona GOP officials’ phone records. Thomas’ wife Ginni was in touch with Arizona Republicans in the aftermath of the 2020 election, trying to overturn its result.
  • “Justice Thomas failed to recuse from ruling on Bates v. Trump, another petition related to the insurrection.
  • “Justice Thomas failed to recuse from the determination of Thompson v. Trump, despite his wife Ginni having an ‘interest’ in the outcome of the proceeding. What’s more, her election subversion movement would have necessarily led to the Supreme Court, where Justice Thomas would have been asked to rule.
  • “Plus, Justice Thomas may have material knowledge of the facts in one or more of the Jan. 6 cases by virtue of his wife’s involvement, and there might be more texts and emails out there that the Jan. 6 Committee would come into possession of.”
  • Three justices—Roberts, Gorsuch, and Elena Kagan–with Charles Schwab mutual funds in their investments recused themselves from pitting Lloyd’s of London against Berkshire Bank, but Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson didn’t. The case was a petition concerning bank collusion and interest rates during the Great Recession.
  • The right-wing “Americans for Prosperity spent more than $1 million to get Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” the third Trump nominee, confirmed, “and Barrett did not recuse from the 2021 case Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta.
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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.