by Michael Rigby
Justice Clarence Thomas is the Supreme Court's poorest member -- he's also its most prolific gift taker. From 1998 through 2003, Thomas accepted $42,200 worth of cash, antiques, clothes and other free merchandise. The largess includes a bust of president Lincoln valued at $15,000, a Bible once owned by noted 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglas worth $19,000, a $5,000 personal check to help pay for a relative's education expenses, and an $800 Daytona 500 commemorative jacket.
Federal law loosely regulates gifts given to public servants, but a glaring loophole exists. While judges and other federal employees are prohibited from accepting anything of value" from persons with official business before them, gifts of unlimited value can be lavished by those without official business.
Such lax rules have raised ethics concerns in some circles. In October 2004, for instance, a panel of the American Bar Association called for more restrictive rules to bar judges from accepting expensive gifts, free tickets and other valuable items regardless of who gives them.
Why would someone do that -- give a gift to Clarence Thomas? Unless they are family members or really close friends, the only reason to give gifts is to influence the judge," said Mark Harrison, a Phoenix attorney who heads the ABA's Commission on the Model Code of Judicial Conduct. And we think it is not helpful to have judges accepting gifts for no apparent reason.
The commission's proposal was modeled on a similar regulation adopted by Congress in 1995. Under that rule, members of Congress and their staffs are prohibited from accepting anything of monetary value" in excess of $50 at one time or more than $100 annually from any person other than a relative.
In the case of the justices, however, simply tightening the rules may not be enough. In addition to being exempt from rules that govern lesser judges, each Supreme Court justice is allowed -- by law and tradition -- to decide for himself or herself how general ethics guidelines apply to them.
In 2004, for example, Justice Antonin Scalia was criticized for accepting a free plane ride aboard Air Force II from Dick Cheney, who at the time was involved in a case before the court involving an energy taskforce. When the other party in the lawsuit, the Sierra Club, filed a motion to have Scalia removed, the court simply referred the motion back to Scalia to decide the matter for himself. He declined to recuse himself. Thus, even if the ABA's recommendation for stricter rules was adopted for federal judges, it would serve merely as a guide for those on the Supreme Court.
Still, even with the current rules, most Supreme Court justices show at least some restraint. While Thomas accepted $40,000-plus in gifts from 1998 through 2003, the court's next most prolific gift taker, Sandra Day O'Connor, raked in just $5,825 worth of free items. Third was former Chief Justice William Rehnquist (now deceased), who accepted only one gift during that time period -- a $5,000 award from Fordham University. Most justices do, however, accept free club memberships and all expense-paid teaching appointments overseas.
Thomas has reported taking gifts every year he has been on the Supreme Court, save one: 2003. That year Thomas received a $500,000 advance on a $1.5 million book deal from Harper Collins, which plans to publish his autobiography.
In 2005 the justices each earned $199,200, up from $194,300 in 2004 (the Chief Justice receives $208,100). They may earn another $23,000 through outside activities such as teaching. Not that most of the justices aren't well off without their hefty paychecks or free gifts. At least six of the nine Supreme Court judges are millionaires. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter are reportedly the wealthiest, with a net worth between $5 million and $25 million. The justices on the low end of the financial scale include Clarence Thomas, with listed assets of $410,000 or less (excluding the payment from his book deal), and Anthony M. Kennedy, who reports assets worth a maximum of $230,000 (Kennedy has reportedly been divesting major assets for years).
The above figures do not include the worth of the justices' personal homes; if those values were included most if not all of the Supreme Court judges would be considered millionaires.
Newly-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts' net worth, according to a 2005 filing with the Senate Judiciary Committee, is approximately $5.3 million. Interestingly, his financial holdings increased by some $1.5 million since Roberts become a federal appeals judge in 2003. He owns stock in Dell Computer, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, XM Satellite Radio, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent, Nokia, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, Disney, Blockbuster and Citigroup, among other companies. All or most of whom have cases before the supreme court on a regular basis.
President Bush's recent Supreme Court appointee, Samuel Alito, who replaced justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is another millionaire justice. Alito holds about $850,000 in financial securities and has a net worth of $1.72 million. His stock investments include Exxon-Mobile, McDonald's Corp, Intel and Walt Disney Co.
Source: The Seattle Times, World Socialist Web Site
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