When I began my career as a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, I was occasionally offered a junket or an opportunity to get something of value without earning it or paying for it.
Reputable news reporters (as opposed to lifestyle and travel reporters) didn’t accept junkets. To do so was widely considered to be unethical because it affected one’s objectivity or the appearance of one’s objectivity. We knew that a reader would not trust a reporter who, for example, accepted a free trip to the Bahamas from the mayor of the city that s/he was covering.
This is one reason that I find it so galling that members of the highest court in our land, the U.S. Supreme Court, have no compunction about accepting junkets. They do it all the time.
Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly last month at a Texas hunting lodge, where he was staying for free as a guest of a Texas businessman.
According to USA Today, the nine justices took more than 1,000 reported trips paid for by outside sources from 2004 to 2014. Scalia was the most traveled, with more than 23 trips on average a year, followed by Justice Stephen Breyer, with 17. Chief Justice John Roberts took the least, fewer than five per year. Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at separate Federalist Society events in the Palm Springs area sponsored by Charles Koch, who has poured millions into conservative causes. Scalia attended events sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society more than 20 times over about a decade in resort towns that include Park City, Utah, and Napa, Calif. Breyer traveled to London, Luxembourg and Sun Valley in 2014 with groups picking up the tab. Whether or not this is an actual ethics violation, it doesn’t look good. It undermines trust in the judiciary.
If poorly paid newspaper reporters pass up freebies for the sake of professionalism, why don’t highly paid U.S. Supreme Court justices? Even if it’s not required, why don’t they? Perhaps it’s because federal judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices, have lifetime tenure. Maybe it really doesn’t matter to them whether or not people think they are objective. They can’t be fired. Which is a very good reason for term limits for federal judges.