Guest Editorial: Scalia’s death outlines issue

USA Today
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Last month’s sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia at a Texas hunting lodge, where he was staying for free as a guest of a Texas businessman, put a spotlight on a long-simmering ethical issue.

Should Supreme Court justices be taking trips paid for by business people, political activists, ideological organizations, or anyone with vested interests in the broad legal issues that come before the court?

The short answer is no, they shouldn’t.

But they are. From 2004 to 2014, the nine justices took more than 1,000 reported trips paid for by outside sources. Scalia was by far the most traveled, with more than 23 trips on average a year, followed by Justice Stephen Breyer, with 17. Chief Justice John Roberts took the least, fewer than five per year.

We’re not suggesting the justices are for sale. We are saying it looks bad for any judge, let alone the nine men and women who decide the most far-reaching issues of the day, to accept free trips, some of which are never publicly disclosed and many of which are paid for by private groups with clear agendas.

In today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, in which Senate Republicans say they won’t consider anyone President Obama nominates to succeed Scalia, there is already a regrettable tendency to look upon Supreme Court members as politicians in robes instead of impartial jurists. So even the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines confidence in the judicial system.

It’s one thing for a justice to fly to another city for a night to speak at a university or a bar association event. It’s quite another if the trip is to an expensive resort for an event paid for by someone such as billionaire Charles Koch, who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative political causes.

Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at separate Federalist Society events in the Palm Springs area sponsored by Koch. Their attendance — which inspired much criticism after it was accidentally revealed — might never have been public if not for Koch mentioning it on the invitation to a 2011 event.

Like other government officials, the justices report once a year. It takes months for reports to become public. A trip taken in January 2015 won’t be known publicly until this June. The value of transportation, lodging and meals is not disclosed, only the location and sponsor.

And many trips fall into a gaping hole created by this exception: “Personal hospitality of an individual” does not need to be reported.

That might well have been the fate of Scalia’s trip to the Texas hunting lodge where he died. The businessman picked up the tab for 37 guests, including Scalia’s $700-a-night room, according to The Washington Post. The host also owns a company that had a matter the Supreme Court declined to hear last year, The New York Times reported.

The justices, who earn nearly a quarter of a million a year, shouldn’t need a code to recognize they ought to pay their own way to certain events or stay away from pricey retreats labeled as “educational” events.