As noted in a NYT editorial by Jeff Shesol, some of the justices of the Supreme Court are spending a lot of their time off the bench engaging in all sorts of extracurricular activities. Of course, they have always participated in the usual speech-giving and book-singing circuit – but as of late, some justices have lent their names to organizations with decidedly partisan agendas, including Koch-sponsored policy retreats, and have become increasingly entangled with ideological benefactors with clearly partisan agendas.
This has prompted calls for a re-examination of our standard of judicial ethics, since many of them surprisingly do not apply to the high court. Sheshol writes:
Yet there are few, if any, precedents for the involvement of Justices Thomas and Scalia with the fund-raising efforts of the Koch brothers. In an invitation to a meeting earlier this year in Palm Springs, Calif., Charles Koch cautioned financial contributors that “our ultimate goal is not ‘fun in the sun.’ This is a gathering of doers.” The meeting’s objective was “to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it.” Last summer’s sessions included “Framing the Debate on Spending” and “Mobilizing Citizens for November.” The invitation listed Justices Scalia and Thomas first among the “notable leaders” who had attended past meetings.
In the face of criticism, the court’s conservatives may be doubling down. Justice Thomas, in particular, has lashed back, refusing to disclose activities and relationships that have been called into question. Stone’s admonition, clearly, is as relevant as ever. Over its history, the Supreme Court has faced periodic threats to its legitimacy and has survived with its powers intact, thanks in large part to its public esteem. At some point, another challenge will come. And the court, next time, may find fewer Americans on its side if its members allow themselves to be perceived, in Justice Breyer’s words, as “junior-varsity politicians” who possess, but do not merit, the last word.