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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Greg Stohr

Ketanji Brown Jackson book deal joins trendy Supreme Court side hustle

WASHINGTON — Ketanji Brown Jackson’s new book deal adds to what has become a phenomenon at the U.S. Supreme Court: Justices looking to craft their own images and perhaps score a hefty payday along the way.

Jackson’s memoir, "Lovely One," will tell her life’s story, from her childhood in Miami to her confirmation last year as the first Black female justice, according to her publisher, Random House.

It could also make Jackson the fourth current justice to get a book advance of at least $1 million, joining Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett. Although Random House didn’t disclose the terms of Jackson’s deal, Barrett reportedly secured a $2 million advance from a different imprint at Penguin Random House LLC in 2021.

The arrangements don’t violate any laws or ethical rules, which let judges and justices earn unlimited book income. But some legal experts say they are uneasy with the appearances created by the large sums — well above the $274,200 salaries associate justices earned in 2022.

“From the perspective of the average American who is grinding out a living at 40K a year, the optics of a judge who is paid $250,000 in tax dollars to do the people’s business as a justice earning several times her salary on a side deal may be problematic,” said Charles Geyh, who specializes in judicial ethics as a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.

Jackson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In a news release issued Thursday by Random House, Jackson described the book as a “transparent accounting of what it takes to rise through the ranks of the legal profession, especially as a woman of color with an unusual name and as a mother and a wife striving to reconcile the demands of a high-profile career with the private needs of my loved ones.”

Book-writing isn’t a new occurrence at the Supreme Court. Justice William O. Douglas wrote more than 30 books before his death in 1980. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her brother wrote about their childhood on an Arizona ranch in 2002.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s books included one on the impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson — a tome that came in handy when Rehnquist was called upon to preside over President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.

But it is new for justices to be writing potential best-sellers before they’ve had any real effect in the court. Jackson has yet to produce her first majority opinion. Barrett had written only two before her book deal became public. Sotomayor was on the court less than a year before her publisher announced plans for her memoir.

The eye-popping dollars are also a change. Politico reported that Barrett secured a $2 million advance, and her 2021 financial disclosure report indicated she collected $425,000 in royalties for the yet-to-published book.

Sotomayor got a $1.175 million advance in 2010 and all told has collected more than $3 million for her memoir. She has also written a series of children’s books. Thomas collected $1.5 million for his 2007 memoir.

Thomas and Sotomayor used their books to lay out compelling life stories. Thomas, the first Republican-appointed Black justice, wrote about his birth into poverty in coastal Georgia, the influence of the grandfather who raised him and the sexual harassment allegations that almost derailed his Supreme Court confirmation. Sotomayor, the first Latina justice, described a path that took her from a South Bronx housing project to the federal courts.

Both justices offered glimpses of their emerging legal philosophies, helping to explain how they reached starkly different conclusions about the meaning of the Constitution. Sotomayor is now an anchor of the court’s liberal wing, and Thomas is by some measures the most conservative justice.

Barrett hasn’t said what her book will cover. A fifth justice, Neil Gorsuch, published a book primarily focused on the role of judges, though with some elements of a memoir, including his Colorado roots and Supreme Court clerkship. Gorsuch has reported collecting more than $600,000 in royalties, and is now working on a second book.

Justices aren’t required to disclose the details of their book deals, beyond listing the income on their annual disclosure reports.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law professor and former White House ethics lawyer, said he worries that interest groups might buy books in bulk as a way of channeling money to a justice. He said justices should receive only a standard percentage of retail sales to individual buyers.

“If I have a conservative foundation that’s anti-abortion or something, and I put it an order for 3,000 copies of Justice Barrett’s book to give away, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” he said.

Other legal ethics scholars say they aren’t troubled. “I don’t see a problem with justices writing books in return for payment under ethics and recusal laws, as long as they are transparent about that and report the income as required under federal law,” said Amanda Frost, a University of Virginia School of Law professor who studies judicial ethics.

Stephen Gillers, a judicial ethics scholar at New York University Law School, said that “there is no bar to a justice writing her memoirs and getting handsomely compensated for it.”

The code of conduct for federal judges says that compensation for outside activities including books “should not exceed a reasonable amount nor should it exceed what a person who is not a judge would receive for the same activity.” It also calls on judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity” of the judiciary.

The code doesn’t formally apply to the Supreme Court, though the justices say they consult it.

Jackson’s book announcement comes with the court awash with other ethics controversies, including Thomas’s participation in cases stemming from the 2020 presidential election even though his wife, Virginia Thomas, was involved in efforts to overturn former President Donald Trump’s defeat.

And the court is still grappling with last year’s unprecedented leak of its draft opinion overturning the constitutional right to abortion. The court hasn’t provided any updates since Chief Justice John Roberts opened an internal investigation in May.

“It is important to keep these concerns in context,” Geyh said in an email. “When viewed against the backdrop of other recent ethics problems confronting the court (to say nothing of declining public support in the court itself), the Barrett and Jackson book deals are small potatoes. I’m uneasy about them, but wouldn’t characterize the conduct as a clear violation of the code.”

(Kimberly Robinson contributed to this report.)

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