For colleges and libraries seeking a boldfaced name for a guest lecturer, few come bigger than Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice who rose from poverty in the Bronx to the nation's highest court.
She has benefited, too — from schools' purchases of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the books she has written over the years.
Sotomayor's staff has often prodded public institutions that have hosted the justice to buy her memoir or children's books, works that have earned her at least $3.7 million since she joined the court in 2009. Details of those events, largely out of public view, were obtained by The Associated Press through more than 100 open records requests to public institutions. The resulting tens of thousands of pages of documents offer a rare look at Sotomayor and her fellow justices beyond their official duties.
In her case, the documents reveal repeated examples of taxpayer-funded court staff performing tasks for the justice's book ventures, which workers in other branches of government are barred from doing. But when it comes to promoting her literary career, Sotomayor is free to do what other government officials cannot because the Supreme Court does not have a formal code of conduct, leaving the nine justices to largely write and enforce their own rules.
"This is one of the most basic tenets of ethics laws that protects taxpayer dollars from misuse," said Kedric Payne, a former deputy chief counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics and current general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Washington. "The problem at the Supreme Court is there's no one there to say whether this is wrong."
Supreme Court staffers have been deeply involved in organizing speaking engagements intended to sell books. That is conduct prohibited for members of Congress and the executive branch, who are barred under ethics rules from using government resources, including staff, for personal financial gain. Lower federal court judges are also instructed to not "lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance" their "private interests."
In a statement, the Supreme Court said it works with the justices and their staff to ensure they are "complying with judicial ethics guidance for such visits."
"When (Sotomayor) is invited to participate in a book program, Chambers staff recommends the number of books (for an organization to order) based on the size of the audience so as not to disappoint attendees who may anticipate books being available at an event," the court said.
The documents obtained by AP show that the justices' conduct spans their conservative-liberal split. Besides book sales, appearances by the justices were used in hopes of raising money at schools, which often invited major contributors to the events. Justices also lent the allure of their high office to partisan activity.
In 2019, as Sotomayor traveled the country to promote her new children's book, "Just Ask!," library and community college officials in Portland, Oregon, jumped at the chance to host an event.
They put in long hours and accommodated the shifting requests of Sotomayor's court staff. Then, as the public cost of hosting the event soared almost tenfold, a Sotomayor aide emailed with a different, urgent concern: She said the organizers did not buy enough copies of the justice's book, which attendees had to purchase or have on hand in order to meet Sotomayor after her talk.
"For an event with 1,000 people and they have to have a copy of Just Ask to get into the line, 250 books is definitely not enough," the aide, Anh Le, wrote staffers at the Multnomah County Library. "Families purchase multiples and people will be upset if they are unable to get in line because the book required is sold out."
It was not an isolated push. As Sotomayor prepared for commencement weekend at the University of California, Davis law school, her staff pitched officials there on buying copies of signed books in connection with the event. Before a visit to the University of Wisconsin, the staff suggested a book signing.
At Clemson University in South Carolina, school officials offered to buy 60 signed copies before a 2017 appearance; Sotomayor's staff noted that most schools order around 400. Michigan State University asked Sotomayor to come to campus and in 2018 spent more than $100,000 on copies of her memoir, "My Beloved World," to distribute to incoming first-year students. The books were shipped to the Supreme Court, where copies were taken to her chambers by court workers and signed by her before being sent to the school.
Sotomayor, whose annual salary this year is $285,400, is not alone in earning money by writing books. Such income is exempt from the court's $30,000 restriction on outside yearly pay. But none of the justices has as forcefully leveraged publicly sponsored travel to boost book sales as has Sotomayor, according to emails and other records reviewed by the AP.
Such promotional efforts risk damaging the Supreme Court's public standing further by placing an individual justice above the institution itself, said J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge who has pushed for the justices to adopt a formal code of conduct.
"I have never believed that Supreme Court justices should write books to supplement their judicial incomes," said Luttig, who was considered for the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush. "The potential for promotion of the individual justices over the Court at the reputational expense of the Court as an institution, as well as the appearance of such, is unavoidable."
Sotomayor's publisher, Penguin Random House, also has played a role in organizing her talks, in some cases pressing public institutions to commit to buying a specific number of copies or requesting that attendees purchase books to obtain tickets, emails show. The publisher has had several matters before the court in which Sotomayor did not recuse herself.
"Justice Sotomayor would have recused in cases in which Penguin Random House was a party, in light of her close and ongoing relationship with the publisher," the Supreme Court said in a statement. "An inadvertent omission failed to bring Penguin's participation in several cases to her attention; those cases ultimately were not selected for review by the Court. Chambers' conflict check procedures have since been changed."
A person close to Sotomayor, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the justice's book dealings, said that Sotomayor "has not and will not profit from sales" of her memoir beyond the $3.1 million advance that she received and that doing so would "require purchases of hundreds of thousands of additional books, more than double the purchases to date."
Sotomayor, however, continues to earn royalties — at least $400,000 since 2019 — from sales of her children's literature, including "Just Ask!," her second best-selling book, which was the promotional focus of the 2019 event held in Portland, emails and records show.
That summer, after an aide to Sotomayor first contacted Portland Community College to gauge its interest in hosting a book talk, officials at the Oregon school called it an "exciting possibility." Officials committed to spending $1,000 to host the event. Co-host Multnomah County Library pledged an additional $1,500.
Costs associated with the event spiked to more than $20,000 by the time it was held in September 2019. Emails show Supreme Court staff, including Le, a longtime legal assistant to the justice and graduate of the community college, closely controlled the run-of-show, requesting the largest venue possible, while managing minor details such as the placement of stairs or approving the TV camera angles that would be used.
As the talk neared, Le shifted her focus to books, which were offered for sale online to those who obtained tickets to the free event.
"Can you please show me the screen where people can purchase books?" Le wrote library staffers as they prepared to make the tickets available. "Are you just placing Just Ask … on the portal or all of the Justice's books."
When the free tickets were quickly snapped up, she asked library officials to publicize that those who could not get tickets could still meet the justice if they purchased a book.
"Please also let them know that they can attend the signing line to meet the Justice even if they are not able to attend the event," Le wrote in an Aug. 26, 2019, email.
A day later, she followed with another email, concerned that not enough of the people who got tickets had also purchased a book. Records indicate that the roughly 550 free tickets made available to the public (the rest were reserved for VIP guests) resulted in the advance purchase of only 28 books.
"Is there a reminder going out that people need to purchase a book at the event or bring a book to get into the signing line?" Le wrote. "Most of the registrants did not purchase books."
Still, when she found out event organizers had only purchased 250 copies of Sotomayor's book, she sent an email telling library officials that the quantity was "definitely not enough."
A library staffer emailed back, "Maybe you should communicate with (Sotomayor's publisher) and the book sellers about your concerns?"
A library spokesman, who was also included on the emails, declined to comment.
In its statement, the Supreme Court said judicial ethics guidance "suggests that a judge may sign copies of his or her work, which may also be available for sale" so long as there is "no requirement or suggestion that attendees are required to purchase books in order to attend."
"Justice Sotomayor's Judicial Assistant has worked with the Justice's publisher to ensure compliance with these standards, and at no time have attendees been required to buy a book in order to attend an event," the court statement read. "Asking whether attendees were reminded that they must either buy or bring a book in order to enter a signing line at an event would in no way conflict with the standard outlined above."
Some institutions that bought Sotomayor's books initiated the purchases on their own, raising the prospect of high-volume orders with the court as they extended the invitation to host her.
In 2018, Michigan State spent $110,000 for 11,000 copies of "My Beloved World," to distribute to incoming first-year students after selecting it for an annual reading program with the East Lansing Public Library.
"Her biography is really just kind of, for lack of a better term, a rags-to-riches story. I mean, she came from very humble beginnings and became a Supreme Court justice," library director Kristin Shelley told the AP, explaining the book selection.
The books were shipped to the Supreme Court, scores of cartons at a time, to be signed by Sotomayor.
"Hello Supreme Court team: Good news!" a Penguin Random House worker emailed court staff. "The order that Anh and I have been waiting for from Michigan State University is in! They are going to be ordering a total of 11,004 HC (hard cover) copies. But don't panic. We will not be delivering 11,004 copies to the Supreme Court at one time."
When university officials mistakenly thought they might be missing 20 boxes of books they had ordered, Le expressed surprise, writing, "I literally prepped the boxes and had my aides count the books before signing. I even have a spreadsheet noting how many books were signed each day."
Other colleges have made similar purchases. The University at Albany in New York bought about 3,700 copies before a 2017 appearance. Stony Brook University in New York ordered roughly 3,900 copies in 2018 for use in a first-year reading program.
When the subject arose of how many Sotomayor books Clemson should purchase before a 2017 visit, school officials worried 60 might be too many to sign. Sotomayor's legal assistant reassured them it would not be a problem because "most institutions order in the ranges of 400 and up."
Other justices have benefited from similar arrangements. But how much they have made from individual schools or events is difficult to assess because the justices only report lump-sum earnings at year's end.
Justice Clarence Thomas has collected about $1 million since 2006. Stephen Breyer, who retired in 2022, reported roughly $700,000 in royalty income in the past two decades. Justice Neil Gorsuch has disclosed more than $900,000 since his 2017 confirmation. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed in 2020, received a reported $2 million advance for a forthcoming book. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson signed a book deal, but the amount of her advance was not public.
In Sotomayor's case, her staff routinely brought up books in emails as trip details were discussed.
"Depending on quantity and if they get hardcover or paperback, she will sign them," Le told a professor at the UC Davis law school, which arranged to host her for commencement weekend in 2018. "She is signing over 11,000 for one school right now," Le added with a smiling emoji, apparently referencing Michigan State's purchase.
The law school ultimately ordered 410 signed copies of "My Beloved World," after Le broached the idea of ordering copies. But one law school official took issue after a colleague relayed what he said was a question from Sotomayor's staff about setting up a book table during graduation festivities.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea, have we ever allowed other speakers to sell or offer their books (that we have purchased for guests)?" Kelley Weiss, the law school's head of marketing and communications, wrote to the dean. "I think having a table of her books could be out of place," she added. Weiss declined to comment to the AP.
Then planning took a turn. Weeks before the ceremony, Sotomayor fractured her shoulder and canceled her appearance. The school in turn canceled its $6,500 book order and sought a refund.
Still, Sotomayor's office inquired to make sure.
"Is it for sure that UC Davis would like to move forward with canceling?" Le emailed. "I have the books on hold in storage and have not done anything with them."
In about a month, the cancellation was processed.
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