A few hours after the Supreme Court justices met last Thursday, November 10, to consider hearing challenges to the national health care overhaul, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the honored speakers at a fundraiser for a conservative legal group that was sponsored in part by health care reform opponents involved in the litigation.
The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would review three challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care reform law championed by the Obama administration and opposed by conservative groups nationwide. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law – and the controversial individual mandate that requires taxpayers to obtain heath insurance – in June, as the 2012 campaign season is in full swing.
Soon after the justices met to discuss hearing the cases, Scalia and Thomas were the featured honorees and speakers at an annual fundraiser for The Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
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Pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has considerable stake in the outcome of the case, sponsored the fundraiser, along with lawyers and law firms involved in legal challenges to the health care reform law, according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Common Cause.
Paul Clement, a lead attorney who will argue before the Supreme Court in March on behalf of 26 states that challenged the law, sat between Scalia and Thomas during the fundraising dinner. Clement's firm, Bancroft PLLC, was listed as a “silver” sponsor of the dinner.
“The justices were wining and dining at a black-tie fundraiser with attorneys who have pending cases before the court,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “Their appearance and assistance in fundraising for this event undercuts any claims of impartiality and is unacceptable.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), an outspoken opponent of the health care reform, was also in attendance.
Scalia and Thomas have been attending Federalist Society events for years, and this is not the first time they have been called out for participating in ethically questionable events outside the court. Their appearance at the fundraiser has renewed calls for the Supreme Court to adhere to the same code of conduct imposed on all other federal judges.
According to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, “a judge may attend fund-raising events of law-related and other organizations although the judge may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program of such an event.”
The code governs activity for federal judges in lower courts, but Supreme Court justices are exempt from the code and must only look to it for guidance.
Scalia and Thomas have also been criticized for attending fundraisers for other right-wing groups and at least one secretive political retreat hosted by Koch Industries, a massive conglomerate run by the now-infamous Koch brothers, who have injected huge sums of money into the conservative movement in recent years, according to the Alliance for Justice.
Democrats in Congress have asked Thomas to recuse himself from any cases involving the health care overhaul because his wife, “Ginni” Thomas, has worked for several high-profile conservative groups that oppose health care reform, and Thomas failed to report that his wife earned nearly $700,000 from the Heritage Foundation from 2003 to 2007.
In March, dozens of high-profile legal ethicists wrote a nonpartisan letter to ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asking them to impose the Code of Conduct on the Supreme Court.