America needs more than disclosure of judges’ free trips, meals, & other bribes

Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse, Lisa McCormick

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, released a letter from the Administrative Office of the Courts indicating that the Judicial Conference of the United States has adopted new, stricter rules requiring far more disclosure of free trips, meals, and other “hospitality” accepted by federal judges and Supreme Court justices. 

One New Jersey political activist says Congress should outlaw bribery instead of merely putting it out in the open. Progressive New Jersey Democrat Lisa McCormick said she was disappointed that senators on the Judiciary Committee failed to take stronger action to outlaw bribery rather than tightening disclosure rules.

She has called for stronger action in the past.

McCormick said a study by St. Louis University political scientist Christopher Witko reveals a direct relationship between what a corporation spends on campaign contributions and the amount it receives back in government contracts, and it is disturbing that judges are taking gifts from individuals and corporations that have interests pending before their court. 

The Administrative Office’s announcement comes in response to Whitehouse’s letter last month calling for these changes, which followed years of Whitehouse raising awareness about the personal hospitality loophole.

“The Judicial Conference’s updated rules on financial disclosure are a big step toward closing the loopholes that kept the public in the dark about who was paying for justices’ lavish lifestyles,” said Whitehouse.  “These new rules will make it much harder for justices to travel, dine, hunt, or vacation for free at the private resort of a wealthy corporate executive – especially one with business before their court – and avoid disclosing that information to the public.  I’m hopeful this rule is a harbinger of more ethics and transparency improvements to come for the Supreme Court.”

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires certain government officials, including judges and justices, to complete financial disclosures each year.  That law includes limited exceptions to these disclosures, and allows each branch to define those exemptions more completely. 

Supreme Court practice followed financial disclosure requirements much weaker than other branches of government, especially with regard to the disclosure exemption for “personal hospitality.” 

Justices of the Supreme Court accepted undisclosed “personal hospitality” at resorts after arranging “personal” invitations from the resort owner, and did not disclose the gifts of hospitality. 

Because the gifts were not disclosed, it remains unknown whether the resorts also received undisclosed reimbursement from third parties, said Whitehouse.

“The nation’s highest judicial officers were subject to the lowest standards of transparency of any senior officials across the federal government,” said McCormick. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Cory Booker failed to close these loopholes, just as he failed to enact laws prohibiting other forms of bribery, including bundled campaign contributions and dark money spending.”

“Washington does not function as a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ because the politicians have allowed elections to be converted to auctions, in which the candidates who spend the most money usually win,” said McCormick. “It is clear that corporations use campaign contributions to gain access to politicians and that allows them to influence the awarding of government contracts.”

“Cases over the last 12 years made it increasingly difficult for prosecutors to get convictions as federal bribery laws have been dramatically narrowed by court decisions requiring prosecutors to prove an official took a specific governmental action in exchange for a bribe,” said McCormick. “Even when the other US Senator from New Jersey was indicted by the Obama administration, Cory Booker stood with him instead of standing up for the people, who are the victims.”

In the most recent letter, the Judicial Conference has made it clear that the reporting exemption does not apply to, among other things, gifts of hospitality at facilities owned by an entity, even if that entity is owned wholly or in part by an individual; gifts of hospitality paid for by any entity or individual other than the individual providing the hospitality or for which the individual is reimbursed; and gifts of hospitality extended at a commercial property. 

These updates will help bring the financial disclosure rules for judges and justices in line with those of other government officials.

Whitehouse said the Judicial Conference’s financial disclosure rules do not provide a carve-out for the Supreme Court, as other regulations do.

The Supreme Court admitted this in response to a February 2021 letter from Whitehouse and Senator Lindsey Graham on the personal hospitality exemption.

The Judicial Conference’s updated rules resolve some of the issues addressed by Whitehouse and Rep. Hank Johnson’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act

The SCERT ACT would require the Supreme Court to adopt rules requiring disclosure rules for gifts, travel, and income received by justices and law clerks that are at least as rigorous as the House and Senate disclosure rules, among other important provisions to bring basic transparency and accountability to the federal judiciary.

“I would like to see Congress move faster to end legal bribery, but all these problems remain unsolved,” said McCormick. “Booker is one of 13 senators who co-sponsored Whitehouse’s legislation but is it languishing in the committee they both serve on.”

“There will be no more secret ‘personal hospitality’ at commercial resorts; no more secret ‘personal hospitality’ from resort owners the justices don’t know personally; no more secret ‘personal hospitality’ solely because the invitation was delivered ‘personally’; and presumably no more partisan companions with interests before the court tagging along on secret, all-expense-paid vacations,” said Whitehouse.

“The foundation of our constitutional order was eroded by Bob Menendez’s bribery and unethical judges accepting secret ‘personal hospitality’ from partisan companions with interests before the court as severely as it was by the mob of Trump’s terrorists that tried to stage a coup d’etat on January 6, 2021,” said McCormick. “America faces multiple threats and we must all rise up to the responsibility of citizenship to save our republic.”

McCormick has said Congress should outlaw bribery in all forms, including donations to candidates and establish public campaign funding with free postage, internet, TV & radio time, for candidates.

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