Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Group wants more transparency in the Supreme Court

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

When Comcast won a major victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, it might have benefited from political and financial connections that went beyond the courtroom.

Chief Justice John Roberts was part of a narrow 5-4 majority that reversed a lower court ruling and freed Comcast from the prospect of expensive class-action lawsuits in the future. But at the time he weighed in on the case, Roberts owned $100,000 shares of shock in Intel, a tech company that filed a brief in support of Comcast in the case.

To those pushing for more transparency in America’s highest court, that fact raises concerns about whether justices are disclosing conflicts of interest. More troubling is how difficult it is for average Americans to learn about the financial interests of the six men and three women who are the final arbiters of the nation’s most important legal issues.

“Not only is the process by which the justices provide the public access to information about their finances antiquated, but the reports themselves outline just how far the justices have to go to achieve even a minimal level of accountability,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a nonprofit that is calling for more accountability from the Supremes.

It’s an issue that might be more important now than ever before. With Congress stuck in endless election-cycle gridlock and an expanding executive regulatory state, the courts have become a major battleground in American politics.

In its recently completed session, the Supreme Court shaped important issues such as health care, marriage, environmental regulations, election procedures and property rights, to name but a few.

Roth and his team say there’s no evidence Roberts was swayed by Intel’s brief or his financial interests in the Comcast v. Behrend case in 2012. The same is true for two other justices, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito, who also own hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in publicly traded companies — with many of these companies appearing before the high court either as litigants or as filers of amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs.

But when those companies filed briefs with the court, the three justices voted in support of their financial connections nearly 70 percent of the time, according to Fix The Court.

Fix The Court tracked 19 cases since 2009 in which amicus briefs were filed by companies whose stock was owned by either Roberts, Breyer or Alito. Six of those cases, including the 2012 Comcast decision, were 5-4 rulings.

The Comcast v. Behrend ruling was an important one for many major corporations because it set a precedent that allows companies to avoid class-action lawsuits by limiting when courts will issue class certifications.

In that case, plaintiffs had challenged Comcast’s operations in the Philadelphia region. They argued the cable giant was engaging in anti-competitive pricing in violation of federal anti-trust laws.

The ruling, according to Fix The Court, was a big win for companies such as Comcast and its shareholders.

A similar case involving Walmart was decided, again 5-4, in 2011. Intel, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard filed amicus briefs with the court in that case, at a time when Roberts owned $400,000 in stock in the three companies, according to Fix The Court.

Justices on the Supreme Court are supposed to recuse themselves from cases in which they have a direct conflict of interest; for example, if they owned stock in a company that appeared before the court as a litigant.

But anyone can file a “friend of the court” brief without triggering a justice’s recusal.

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