Gorsuch speaks at Trump Hotel event despite criticism

Gorsuch speaks at Trump Hotel event despite criticism
© Greg Nash

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch gave the keynote address at an event held at the Trump International Hotel Thursday despite blowback from outside groups concerned about the potential ethical conflicts created by appearing at a business owned by the president.

Gorsuch addressed a crowd of about 200 people gathered under crystal chandeliers in a gold-plated ballroom of the Washington, D.C., hotel for a luncheon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) — a conservative group which claims on its website to teach students and young professionals about "limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership."

TFAS said the justice was not paid and received "absolutely no monetary benefit for speaking at the event."

Gorsuch, Trump's first nominee to be appointed to the Supreme Court, shared with the guests of the invite-only event some anecdotes about his first days in his new role on the court and how important it is for each generation to understand how the government works. 

But he said encouraging habits of civility has to go hand-in-hand with teaching civics. To preserve our civil liberties, he said, you have to constantly work on being civil with one another. 

“When it comes to the First Amendment, that means tolerating those who don’t agree with us, those whose ideas upset us, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives, listening and engaging with the merits of their ideas rather than dismissing them because what our own preconceptions say about the speaker,” he said.

Earlier in the week, a coalition of constitutional lawyers, scholars and public interest groups led by Free Speech for People called on Gorsuch to cancel his speech, claiming it creates the appearance of a political endorsement, among other conflicts. 

Members of the NARAL Pro-choice America gathered on the sidewalk in front of the hotel on Thursday morning to protest his decision to voluntarily speak at the hotel.

"We are here to sound the alarm that this is not appropriate behavior for someone who sits on the United States Supreme Court," said Kaylie Hanson Long, the group's spokeswoman. 

Though groups on the left are claiming the venue for his speech is improper, experts say there aren't any rules that explicitly prohibit him from speaking at the hotel.   

Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said the Code of Conduct for United States Judges established by the Judicial Conference applies to lower court judges but is not binding for Supreme Court justices. 

He added that Supreme Court Justices still often look to the code to guide their own conduct. 

The rules prohibit judges from engaging in political activity or lending "the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others."

The rules specifically state, however, that judges may speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in other activities concerning the law, the legal system and the administration of justice.

Hellman said the justices have all spoken at events held by various groups in various locations. 

Earlier this month Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at an event held by the conservative, pro-family interest group Eagle Forum, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at Georgetown Law School, according to scotusmap.com, a website tracking the justices outside activity.

"I think the fact that it’s at the Trump Hotel and the concerns expressed about the violation of an ethical rule are pretty attenuated," Hellman said. 

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"If you go back to that basic rule, it's hard to see how speaking at a hotel owned by someone advances the private interest of the hotel owner. If looked at that way, a lot of speeches would be improper."

Other legal scholars, however, say just because Gorsuch can speak at Trump's Hotel doesn't mean he should.

"He should have demurred to protect the reputation of the Court and his own," Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said in an email to The Hill.

"The optics are awful and will harm the Court and public confidence in it as a non-political body."

In addition to the cases before the court challenging Trump's travel ban, Gillers noted the income from the hotel is at the center of allegations that Trump has violated the emoluments clause, which bars the president from accepting gifts or other benefits from foreign leaders.

Fix the Court, a group working to make the Supreme Court more accountable and transparent, sent a petition with 1,485 signatures to the Supreme Court via the court's clerk Scott Harris urging Chief Justice John Roberts to clarify the ethics requirements for his colleagues’ public talks.

"A Trump appointee speaking at a Trump hotel as the court considers a Trump case unnecessarily invites reproach of our sole functioning branch of government and hurts its legitimacy," Gabe Roth, the group's executive director, said in a statement. 

"Justices should not only seek out less controversial venues, they should also try to address ideologically diverse groups, as the impact of seeing the country’s leading jurists appear before contrarian audiences would go far beyond whatever words they’d share."

Gorsuch's speech comes just days after the court canceled oral arguments in cases challenging Trump's travel ban.

The court removed the cases from the argument calendar after the president issued new targeted restrictions on travelers from eight countries seeking entry into the United States. The parties were directed to submit briefs on how the new order impacts the cases before the court.