A new investigation into the ethics of the U.S. Supreme Court has fingered Justice Sonia Sotomayor for using her taxpayer-funded staff to pressure universities and institutions to buy hundreds or thousands of copies of her books in advance of planned speeches.
The Associated Press obtained hundreds of pages of documents from public organizations across the U.S. which have hosted Sotomayor since she took her seat on the Court in 2009. In many cases, the Justice’s staffers were on record encouraging administrators to purchase copies of her autobiography and children’s books, something that federal ethics laws prevent for members of Congress and other federal government employees. The Supreme Court, however, is exempt from such laws and is allowed to enforce its own ethics procedures.
In a statement to the AP, the court said judicial ethics guidance “suggests that a judge may sign copies of his or her work, which may also be available for sale” so long as there is “no requirement or suggestion that attendees are required to purchase books in order to attend.”
“This is one of the most basic tenets of ethics laws that protects taxpayer dollars from misuse,” said Kedric Payne, a former deputy chief counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics. “The problem at the Supreme Court is there’s no one there to say whether this is wrong.”
“Justice Sotomayor’s Judicial Assistant has worked with the Justice’s publisher to ensure compliance with these standards, and at no time have attendees been required to buy a book in order to attend an event,” the court statement read. “Asking whether attendees were reminded that they must either buy or bring a book in order to enter a signing line at an event would in no way conflict with the standard outlined above.”
Nominated by former President Barack Obama and approved by the Senate in a 68-31 vote, Justice Sotomayor has seen her net worth grow to $3.7 million dollars during her 14 years on the nation’s highest court. The largesse comes from deals like the one struck in 2018 with the University of Michigan, which spent $110,000 for 11,000 copies of Sotomayor’s autobiography “My Beloved World” as required reading for first-year law students.
“Her biography is really just kind of, for lack of a better term, a rags-to-riches story. I mean, she came from very humble beginnings and became a Supreme Court justice,” library director Kristin Shelley told the AP, explaining the book selection.
Criticism of the Supreme Court’s ethics exploded earlier this year when ProPublica released a years-long investigation into Justice Clarence Thomas for his connection to conservative corporate leaders who may have tried to influence his future votes on the court. Since the finding, evidence has emerged that questionable ethical guidance has been given to both conservative and liberal justices who do not face term limits and are rarely admonished formally by elected lawmakers.
Americans’ trust in the Supreme Court has fallen to an all-time low. Just 25 percent have a great deal of confidence in the institution, the lowest level seen since polling by Gallup began in 1973.