In some years, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. does the honors. In others, it might be Justice Sonia Sotomayor or Justice Clarence Thomas presenting the squared-off hunks of marble affixed with the Supreme Court’s gilded seal.
Hewed from slabs left over from the 1930s construction of the nation’s high court and handed out in its magnificent Great Hall, they are a unique status symbol in a town that craves them. And while the ideological bents of the justices bestowing them might vary, there is one constant: All the recipients have given at least $5,000 to a charity favored by the justices, and, more often than not, the donors have a significant stake in the way the court decides cases.
The charity, the Supreme Court Historical Society, is ostensibly independent of the judicial branch of government, but in reality the two are inextricably intertwined. The charity’s stated mission is straightforward: to preserve the court’s history and educate the public about the court’s importance in American life. But over the years the society has also become a vehicle for those seeking access to nine of the most reclusive and powerful people in the nation. The justices attend the society’s annual black-tie dinner soirees, where they mingle with donors and thank them for their generosity, and serve as M.C.s to more regular society-sponsored lectures or re-enactments of famous cases.
The society has raised more than $23 million over the last two decades. Because of its nonprofit status, it does not have to publicly disclose its donors — and declined when asked to do so. But The New York Times was able to identify the sources behind more than $10.7 million raised since 2003, the first year for which relevant records were available.
At least $6.4 million — or 60 percent — came from corporations, special interest groups, or lawyers and firms that argued cases before the court, according to an analysis of archived historical society newsletters and publicly available records that detail grants given to the society by foundations. Of that, at least $4.7 million came from individuals or entities in years when they had a pending interest in a federal court case on appeal or at the high court, records show. [Continue reading…]