A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee is conducting a bipartisan deep-dive review of financial disclosure standards and transparency requirements for senior officials in all three branches of the U.S. government.
As part of that effort, the two top senators on the subcommittee sent a letter Tuesday to the attorney general and director of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) with a request for the travel records of Supreme Court justices, the Washington Examiner reported.
The letter was formally announced in a press release from the office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who was joined in making the request by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA). Those two senators are the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, respectively.
Addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and USMS Director Donald Washington, the letter noted that Congress has been “reevaluating financial disclosure standards for the receipt of gifts, travel, and other emoluments by senior government officials — including the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and other judicial officers” under the auspices of a pair of ethics reform laws from 1978 and 1989.
Specifically, “These statutes require senior government officials to disclose outside income, gifts, and reimbursements on an annual basis.”
Senators seek justices travel records
The senators noted that both the executive branch and Congress have implemented disclosure requirements above and beyond what is required by the two ethics laws, but that the judiciary branch has “significantly less stringent” reporting requirements that don’t “formally apply” to Supreme Court justices.
That means the members of the high court are “subject to the lowest standards of transparency of any senior officials across the federal government.”
Given that the USMS is the agency tasked with providing security for justices during travel, and to “help us assess how disclosures by members of the Court accord with the judicial branch’s disclosure standards,” as well as create consistent standards among all three governmental branches, the senators posed a series of questions in addition to the USMS travel records request.
Specifically, the senators sought any documents, including correspondence and memos, regarding travel in which USMS personnel accompanied a Supreme Court justice, excluding travel to a justice’s home or the home of a family member. They also sought the names of the justices and dates of the trips, the locations to and from which were traveled, and the costs incurred by the USMS in providing security on those trips.
Potential conflicts of interest
Roll Call reported that similar travel records were obtained in 2018 by a nonprofit group through a public records request that provided information about the comings and goings of various Supreme Court justices over the years, such as trips to a theater or opera or hunting vacations, among other things.
The outlet suggested that the senators are really searching for potential conflicts of interest involving sitting justices having their expenses paid on trips by lobbyists.
A similar letter was sent to Chief Justice John Roberts in February, at that time by Sens. Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), which raised the prospect of “legislative solutions” to better align the judiciary’s financial disclosure requirements with the other two branches of government, but according to a spokesperson for Whitehouse, the chief justice never responded to that query.