Supreme Court justices face new disclosure requirements for gifts, free trips

Supreme Court justices must follow strengthened financial disclosure requirements surrounding gifts and free hotel stays, which follows rising pressure from lawmakers about the high court’s ethics rules.

The new regulations quietly went into effect on March 14 and clarify that the justices — and all federal judges — must disclose gifts and free stays at commercial properties, or when gifts of hospitality are being reimbursed by a third party who is not the person providing it.

A committee of the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal courts, approved the new regulations, according to a letter from the director of the federal courts’ administrative arm that was made public on Tuesday.

The letter came in response to one from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading Senate advocate for tougher Supreme Court ethics rules, who called for the updated regulations.

“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,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

“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,” he continued. “I’m hopeful this rule is a harbinger of more ethics and transparency improvements to come for the Supreme Court.”

Supreme Court justices are required to file annual financial disclosure reports under the Ethics and Government Act of 1978.

The law includes an exception for food, lodging, or entertainment received as “personal hospitality,” and the new regulations seek to clarify the term. The exception only covers certain gifts of a nonbusiness nature and does not apply to those extended at a commercial property, according to the updated rules.

They go on to note that “personal” means a judge has a personal relationship with the host and should not include situations in which the invitation is merely being delivered personally.

Concerns over justices’ trips and gifts stretch back years. Some court transparency proponents point back to 2004, when the late Justice Antonin Scalia rebuffed calls to recuse himself from a case involving then-Vice President Dick Cheney following the duo’s duck-hunting trip, which came three weeks after the justices agreed to hear the case.

But in recent years, Democrats in recent years have given renewed attention to ethics rules at the high court as they raised concerns about the work of the justices’ spouses, reported efforts to wine-and-dine the justices to gain influence and the justices’ trips to visit with ideological groups.

Whitehouse and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) earlier this year reintroduced a bill that would require the justices to abide by a binding code of ethics, like the one in place for lower courts.

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