Supreme Court Dogged By Conflict Of Interest Problems?

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The justices on the Supreme Court are supposed to recuse themselves from any case involving a company they are an investor in, but somehow that is not always happening with SCOTUS today.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has admitted he overlooked a conflict of interest when the he participated in the court’s rejection of two appeals in an environmental-cleanup case a couple of months ago.

It has now come to light that Roberts took part in the October 5th official handling of he case even though he (or a close family member) apparently owned shares of Texas Instruments Inc., one of the firms that was seeking review by the court.

More problematic is the fact that this is the second time in the court’s current term that a justice has participated in a case despite owning a stake in a firm involved in it.

Of interest, Roberts is one of three justices who have financial interests in at least a dozen companies, based on their their annual financial disclosure reports.

“There was a conflict that should have been caught but was not,” Kathy Arberg, the Supreme Court’s spokeswoman, noted in an e-mail message to the media. She said the mistake happened because of  “human error.”

More on Supreme Court conflict of interest issues

The first time a conflict of interest was missed was on October 14th of this year, when Justice Stephen Breyer’s holdings were not properly vetted and he ended up hearing an arguments in an energy regulation case that involved a Johnson Controls division. It was discovered later that Breyer’s wife held $33,000 worth of the company’s stock. To make matters worse, Breyer’s wife sold the shares the next day, following an inquiry from the media.

No one is claiming that the conflict of interest impacted the outcome of either case, but these mistakes are just more proof to those  who say the justices should not own actively managed individual stock holdings.

“The institution is in dire need of policy changes on recusals and stock ownership,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which initially reported the potential conflict in the recent case with Justice Roberts.

Litigants are required to list all the parties in any case taken on by the Supreme Court and businesses must disclose any public parent company. Of note, each justice has his or her own system for filtering for conflicts of interest.

Based on a 2014 financial disclosure, Roberts or a family member owns from $100,001 to $250,000 in Texas Instruments.

Should Supreme Court justices own individual stocks?

Another question to be considered is what are SCOTUS justices doing owning individual stocks anyway? That is really poor judgement in this writer’s very strong opinion. They are SUPREME COURT JUSTICES for Christ’s sake, shouldn’t they be invested in mutual funds or a pre-specified lifestyle retirement portfolio that invests “blindly” for them? There should never ever be any doubt about SCOTUS justices’ decision-making being biased, and owning individual stocks clearly opens up that can of worms.

Call me a radical, but one could also advance the argument that governmental figures as important as Supreme Court justices might be expected to make a small sacrifice for their country, such as giving up their constitutional “right to be rich” to make it clear to all Americans that they are truly independent and not biased in any way in their decision-making. It doesn’t have to go as far a “vow of poverty”, but wouldn’t it be ideal if we had SC justices who weren’t worried about “getting rich”, but would happily serve the country for a modest, upper-middle class income during their service and retirement?

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