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Did Justice's Stock Affect SCOTUS Decision on Toxic Waste Suit?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

When the Supreme Court rejected two cert petitions over a toxic waste dispute in Arizona, Chief Justice Roberts took part, despite an easy-to-spot conflict of interest. Texas Instruments, the company that made your high school calculator, was a petitioner in that case. Chief Justice Roberts owns between $100,001 and $250,000 in Texas Instruments Stock, yet failed to recuse himself when the petition was considered.

Does it matter?

Chief Justice Roberts's Unrecognized Conflict

Superfund cases like the one at issue here are typically a mess, involving dozens of companies responsible for decades of pollution. But the chief justice's conflict of interest wasn't complicated at all.

Fix the Court, a group that argues for greater transparency in the Supreme Court, found the conflict when surveying common reasons for recusal. Texas Instruments was a named petitioner, one of 21 companies seeking review. Texas Instruments is listed plainly on Chief Justice Robers's most recent financial disclosure. A basic check should usually catch such an obvious conflict.

(The case, if you're wondering, involved the pollution of Arizona's Broadway Patano Landfill site and what factors a district court make consider when determining if a superfund consent decree is fair and reasonable.)

The Supreme Court's spokesperson blamed the oversight on simple "human error," but Fix the Court thinks it's emblematic of how "the Supreme Court's current system of self-checking for conflicts isn't working."

Not the First Time

This isn't the first failed recusal of the year. In October, Bloomberg revealed that Justice Breyer had failed to recuse himself from another environmental law case. There, the justice's wife, Joanna, held about $33,000 worth of stock in Johnson Controls, a parent company to one of the parties in the case.

After his wife's financial interest in the case was revealed -- following oral arguments -- Justice Breyer announced that that his "ordinary conflict-check" had failed to identify the potential conflict. His wife sold the stock and Justice Breyer declined to recuse himself, saying that he had "no reason to believe that the financial interest could be substantially affected by the outcome of the case."

Did That Cash Have Any Impact?

So, do such conflict slip-ups have an impact on the eventual rulings? No one knows, which is part of the problem. In Chief Justice Roberts's case, it appears not. The Court denied cert, deciding against Texas Instruments' petition.

But votes to grant or deny cert petitions are secret. We don't know, for example, who voted either way or why.

Further, even recusals from cert decisions are opaque. The Court simply announces that a judge did not participate in the decision, without further explanation.

Currently, conflict of interest oversights are handled by each justice individually. If a conflict is overlooked, there's usually no one there to double check. Gabe Roth, of Fix the Court, thinks that needs to change. Roth told The Huffington Post:

I hope that the chief justice acknowledges some of these institutional shortcomings in his year-end report, and that he'll make some reforms and some changes that will make the process more open and will reduce the chances of this happening yet again.

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