Inside the AP’s investigation into the ethics practices of the Supreme Court justices

Jul 11, 2023, 2:30 AM

An email from Kim Patterson, the executive director of the McLennan Community College Foundation, a...

An email from Kim Patterson, the executive director of the McLennan Community College Foundation, about who to invite to a private dinner with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his visit to McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, in 2017, is photographed on June 27, 2023. An Associated Press examination of the ethics practices of the U.S. Supreme Court relied on documents obtained from more than 100 public records requests to public colleges, universities and other institutions that have hosted the justices over the past decade.(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

WASHINGTON (AP) — public colleges, universities and other institutions that have hosted the justices over the past decade.

Here’s a look at how the reporting was done:

To conduct its review, the AP surveyed local news stories and social media and obtained data from ScotusTracker, a website that logged justices’ activities, to develop a list of appearances over the past 10 years.

In late 2022 and early this year, the AP submitted records requests to the public institutions on that list, citing individual state statutes that require the disclosure of certain documents to the public.

The requests sought a broad range of information, including details about any contracts or riders for the appearances; transportation to and from events as well as food and lodging; the recording policy for the event; and any gifts or honorarium discussed or offered, including books.

The AP separately queried more than 100 private colleges, universities and charities that have also hosted justices or organized events for them, requesting that they provide the same information that was asked of public institutions. Some confirmed basic details of the visits, but few provided substantive information.

The AP cataloged the travel and perks afforded to the justices. The AP also compiled lists of guests, including donors and politicians, who were invited to private receptions with justices and vetted them wherever possible against information in federal court records, Federal Election Commission filings, online photo albums of events and other publicly available data.

The responses among public institutions varied widely. Some schools, including the University of Rhode Island, Ohio State University, Stony Brook University and the University of California, Davis, provided records free of charge. Some schools turned over thousands of pages of records, including George Mason University and the University of Kentucky.

McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, produced 104 pages of records in March and then, following a $110 payment, shipped by mail a box of blue folders containing hundreds more pages. A reporting trip was also taken there so that a journalist could observe firsthand the site of a dinner that the college organized for Justice Clarence Thomas.

In some instances, AP filed multiple requests with the same institution, either because the school asked that the initial request be substantially narrowed or because an initial response suggested that even more details might be available. In the case of the University of Texas at Tyler, for instance, the AP filed a follow-up request to obtain a guest list for a dinner with Thomas. A follow-up request was filed with the University of Mississippi for the cost of a flight that carried Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Antonin Scalia and Scalia’s son and grandson in 2014.

Some institutions were less forthcoming. The AP went to the Illinois state attorney general to get a binding opinion directing the Chicago Public Library to produce documents related to a visit by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Other schools, including the University of Arizona, have said their search for records remained ongoing after more than six months.

The AP did pay some schools for documents, including $350 to the University of Utah; $140 to Michigan State University; $159.24 to the University of Minnesota; and roughly $150 to the University of Mississippi.

But some schools responded to records requests with fee demands that the AP deemed unreasonable. The initial fee cited by the University of Georgia for processing two requests was $18,800.50, though it was later reduced after the AP narrowed its request.


The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about the AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Inside the AP’s investigation into the ethics practices of the Supreme Court justices