Rep. Slaughter, Public Interest Groups Release New Evidence That Federalist Society Annual Dinners Are, Indeed, Fundraisers

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  • Dale Eisman

They Urge Reprimands of Justices Thomas and Alito and a Finding of Misconduct Against a 7th Circuit Judge

WASHINGTON, D.C., DECEMBER 5, 2013: A Member of Congress and two public interest groups released new evidence Thursday that Justices of the Supreme Court and a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit have flouted judicial ethics by speaking at dinners to raise funds for the Federalist Society.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, Alliance for Justice, and Common Cause are calling on Chief Justice John Roberts to reprimand Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The groups and Rep. Slaughter have also filed a formal complaint with the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit against Judge Diane Sykes. Justice Thomas and Judge Sykes headlined the Society’s 2013 black-tie gala dinner in November; Justice Alito spoke at the same dinner in 2012. The material released Thursday supplements a formal complaint and letter requesting reprimand sent to the Judicial Council and the Chief Justice, respectively, last month.

Speaking at a fundraiser violates the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Canon 4(c) of the code bars federal judges from using the prestige of their office for fundraising purposes, and specifically states, “a judge may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program” of a fundraising event. All federal judges are covered by the code except Supreme Court Justices. Chief Justice Roberts claims that the Court is guided by the code.

Rep. Slaughter and 59 other Representatives, as well as Senators Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Coons, Dick Durbin, Tom Harkin, Edward Markey and Sheldon Whitehouse have sponsored legislation to require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct.

On Thursday morning, Slaughter delivered a petition to the Chief Justice signed by more than 225,000 Americans who are demanding that Chief Justice Roberts hold Justice Thomas accountable and establish a Code of Conduct for the Supreme Court.

The documents released Thursday show that the Federalist Society rewards its high-end donors with a place at the table – literally – with a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Although a basic ticket to the annual dinner costs $200-a-plate, some who are seated with Supreme Court justices typically have given a lot more to the Federalist Society – sometimes $100,000 or more.

“Supreme Court justices should play by the same rules as every other federal judge in this country – that means adopting a Code of Conduct that will end the practice of high court justices attending high-dollar fundraisers for political causes,” Rep. Slaughter said. “Justice should be administered based on who has the law on their side – not who has the biggest checkbook.”

“The Federalist Society claims that, though their dinner looks like a fundraiser, sounds like a fundraiser and raises money like a fundraiser, somehow it’s not a fundraiser,” said Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron. “The evidence in these documents makes clear that the denial doesn’t pass the smell test.”

“Justice Thomas, Judge Sykes and their colleagues on the bench across America are entrusted by our Constitution with enormous authority; in return, we expect them to uphold the highest ethical standards,” said Arn Pearson, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation. “By lending their names and their prestige to a fundraising event, they’ve fallen short – and these documents prove it.”

The formal complaint and the letter to the Chief Justice point out that:

  • At the 2013 dinner, officers of major conservative foundations were assigned seats at the table of Judge Sykes and Justice Thomas. One such foundation gave at least $100,000 to the Federalist Society in 2012 another gave $325,000 that year.
  • In the program for the dinner, big law firms and corporations labeled “gold,” “silver,” and “bronze” sponsors are thanked specifically for their “generous support” of the dinner – not of the Society’s convention, which takes place at another venue that same day.
  • The Society used a picture of Justice Alito at the 2012 dinner next to a list of donors under the headline “Donors Fuel Federalist Society Expansion.”

Rep. Slaughter, AFJ, and Common Cause urged the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit to find Judge Sykes in violation of the Code of Conduct.

In the letter to the Chief Justice, they wrote that:

Because your 2011 Year-End Report states that the Code “plays the same role” for the Supreme Court as it does for all lower courts, we respectfully urge you to issue a letter of reprimand for Justice Alito for his actions at the 2012 event, renew our request that you issue of letter of reprimand for Justice Thomas at this year’s event, and urge you to publish an official Court policy on the ethics issue at hand here.