'Notoriously porous ethical disclosure system': How 3 SCOTUS spouses present 'conflicts of interest'
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City has been sounding the alarm about potential conflicts of interest involving U.S. Supreme Court justices and their spouses — specifically, the right-wing activism of Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni Thomas, who was heavily involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. AOC has even called for Justice Thomas to either resign or be impeached, although he isn’t the only High Court justice she is worried about. The Bronx/Queens congressman is worried about conflicts of interest in general when it comes to justices and their spouses.
Such conflicts of interest are the focus of a Politico article written by Hailey Fuchs, Josh Gerstein and Peter S. Canellos and published on September 30. The journalists focus heavily on three spouses of Supreme Court justices: Ginni Thomas, Jesse M. Barrett (Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s husband) and Jane Roberts (who is marred to Chief Justice John Roberts).
Fuchs, Gerstein and Canellos point out that if voters want to know whether or not Justice Barrett will be deciding any cases involving her husband’s clients through the company SouthBank Legal, they are “out of luck.”
“A year after Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court, the boutique Indiana firm SouthBank Legal opened its first-ever Washington office in Penn Quarter, a move the firm hailed in a 2021 press release as an ‘important milestone,’” the reporters explain. “The head of the office, Jesse M. Barrett, is the justice’s husband, whose work is described by the firm as ‘white-collar criminal defense, internal investigations, and complex commercial litigation’…. But if anyone wants to find out whether Jesse Barrett’s clients have a direct interest in cases being decided by his wife, they’re out of luck. In the Supreme Court’s notoriously porous ethical disclosure system, Barrett not only withholds her husband’s clients, but redacted the name of SouthBank Legal itself in her most recent disclosure.”
Ginni Thomas’ right-wing activism has received a great deal of scrutiny in recent months, but Fuchs, Gerstein and Canellos note that “potential conflicts involving justices’ spouses extend beyond the Thomases.”
“Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife, Jane Roberts, has gotten far less attention,” they report. “But she is a legal headhunter at the firm Macrae, which represents high-powered attorneys in their efforts to secure positions in wealthy firms, typically for a percentage of the first-year salary she secures for her clients. A single placement of a superstar lawyer can yield $500,000 or more for the firm. Mark Jungers, a former managing partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa, the firm that employed Jane Roberts as a legal recruiter before she moved to Macrae, told Politico the firm hired her hoping it would benefit from her being the chief justice’s wife, in part, because ‘her network is his network and vice versa.’”
Politico probed the activities of other spouses of High Court justices, but their findings were unspectacular.
“The Politico investigation found that some spouses of other Supreme Court justices have also had careers of their own, but none currently appear to have the potential to intersect as closely with the Court’s work as Barrett, Thomas and Roberts,” Fuchs, Gerstein and Canellos report. “Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch reported no non-investment income from their spouses in 2021. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are not married. Brett Kavanaugh’s wife Ashley Estes Kavanaugh — a former George W. Bush White House aide — reported a salary from her position as town manager of Chevy Chase Village Section 5.”
The reporters continue, “This week, the Court is formally welcoming a new justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson. Her husband, Patrick Graves Jackson, currently serves as chief of the general surgery division at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. But Jackson noted, in a disclosure form filed earlier this year, while serving as a lower-court judge, that she had previously left out ‘self-employed consulting income that my spouse periodically receives from consulting on medical malpractice cases.’”
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