With $274,200 salary, Supreme Court justices make lots of cash on the side

The Chief Justice is paid $286,700 and each associate justice on the Supreme Court earns $274,200 in taxpayer-funded salary but the 2021 financial disclosures show the nation’s top judges are taking advantage of major exemptions to federal prohibitions against outside income.

The reports reveal book royalties and advances, teaching remuneration, and rental income — some of which have ethical implications for a judiciary that is already under the public microscope.

Book earnings continue to be a leading story.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2021 signed a deal, reportedly for a book on how judges can remain neutral on the job, with a $2 million advance, $425,000 of which was paid out to her last year.

Justice Neil Gorsuch raked in $250,000 for what appears to be a yet-to-be-written book, pushing his book income total over $900,000.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has earned close to $3.4 million in advances and royalties since joining the court, earned $115,593 last year for two children’s books, plus another $5,125 for optioning one of them to a TV production company.

Neither federal law nor regulations impose any limit on a justice’s book earnings, there is a restriction on income for outside teaching, which in 2021 amounted to $29,895.

Justice Clarence Thomas came closest to that amount, raking in $29,595 for teaching at the law schools of George Washington and Notre Dame.

Gorsuch earned $26,541 for teaching for two weeks in Iceland for George Mason University, Justice Elena Kagan was with him for one of those weeks but took no salary.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also made $25,541 for teaching at George Mason, and Barrett earned $14,280 from Notre Dame.

President Joe Biden signed a law in May that will increase financial disclosure requirements for federal judges and Supreme Court justices, a move legal experts describe as a small but meaningful step towards reform at a time when public trust in the federal judiciary is at an all time low.

“It’s bad enough that the justices predominantly speak to interest groups that serve their perceived teams, with conservative justices appearing at Fed Soc events and the liberals at the American Constitution Society with almost no crossover. 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,” FTC’s Gabe Roth said.

Chief Justice Roberts, who has long vacationed in coastal Maine, now supplements his $280,500 annual salary by renting out his vacation home there. Justices Thomas, Sotomayor and Kagan, who as associate justices each made $268,300 in 2021, also rented out their secondary residences last year.

Given the recent ethical scandals surrounding Justice Thomas and his wife Ginni, it is interesting to note that for 2021 Thomas listed the value of Ginni’s Liberty Consulting as up to $15,000, down from the 2020 value of up to $50,000 and down further from 2019, when Liberty was listed as valued at up to $250,000, which was just after she received two six-figure contracts, in 2017 and 2018, from a conservative group, as reported in the New Yorker. It is unclear why the value has decreased thus.

As expected, Thomas also listed on his report his honorary position on the Horatio Alger Association Board of Directors.

Thomas hosted the organization at the court in April 2022 and posed with Senate candidate and Society honoree Herschel Walker, which was controversial given the proximity (seven weeks) to Walker’s primary election.

You may recall Barrett’s Sept. 2021 trip to Louisville where she spoke at the McConnell Center and, standing next to the Minority Leader, said the court was “not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”

That trip appeared on her report as expected, though it’s a bit ridiculous it took nine months to confirm the flight and hotel were free to her.

By way of a public records request, good government watchdog Fix The Court (FTC) learned that fact in Oct. 2021 — and that Barrett’s talk was preceded by a private dinner, comprising McConnell, the school president and about a dozen “guests/friends of Senator McConnell.”

What the public doesn’t see in Barrett’s report is the cost of her flight, hotel and meal, nor will they learn the cost of similar perks enjoyed by the other justices over the past year. But that would change once the court establishes rules necessitated by the law Biden signed, which will require dollar amounts for all gifts, reimbursements, and similar perks.

This is the last year in which the justices’ disclosures will be released as thumb drives and not online. Thanks to the bipartisan Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, signed by Biden, the court will be required in future years to post the justices’ disclosures online.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts will be required to post lower court judges’ 2022 disclosures online, as well, by mid-August next year.

Per that law, by the end of this summer justices and lower court judges will be required to file reports within 45 days of a stock transaction greater than $1,000, as members of Congress have done for a decade.

The court’s disclosures show that at least two justices still own individual stocks: Chief Justice John Roberts holds shares in four companies and Justice Stephen G. Breyer in eight. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who holds shares in two dozen companies, has yet to submit his 2021 disclosure report.

Though Justices Roberts, Thomas, Breyer and Kavanaugh included the name of their wives’ employers on their reports, Justice Barrett had the name of her husband’s employer, SouthBank Legal, blacked out, which is especially odd given that Jesse Barrett’s bio page exists.

Justices may request redactions, which generally get approved, for “sensitive information,” though that phrase is a bit malleable.

FTC is still waiting for Sotomayor to update her 2016 disclosure, in which she left out a trip to Rhode Island comprising a $1,000 flight and up to 11 rooms at one of the state’s most expensive hotels on URI’s dime, not to mention a motorcade from the airport and the university’s purchase of more than 100 copies of her autobiography.

Earlier this year, thanks to FTC’s research and persistence, Thomas updated his 2017 and 2018 disclosures by adding reimbursed trips he had initially left out.

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