When the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepted a $1 million prize from a liberal billionaire’s foundation, she pledged to pass the money to a list of designated charities. Four years later, it is unclear where Ginsburg sent that money—an ambiguity that experts say raises conflict of interest concerns.
The Berggruen Institute, a private foundation founded by billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, awarded Ginsburg its annual $1 million Philosophy & Culture award during a swanky star-studded event in December 2019. At the time, ethics experts raised red flags over Ginsburg’s acceptance of the prize, noting that the bounty far exceeded the $2,000 limit placed on honoraria by Judicial Conference regulations. But Ginsburg temporarily assuaged those concerns when she pledged to donate the prize money to more than 60 charities that reflected her personal causes, including the American Bar Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the Metropolitan Opera.
What Ginsburg failed to mention was that she also directed the Berggruen Institute to conceal the full list of her designated charities from the public, a spokeswoman for the institute told the Washington Free Beacon. The Berggruen Institute even engaged in some creative accounting in its Form 990 tax return to ensure the recipients remain shrouded in secrecy.
"That list, per her wishes, is not for publication," Berggruen Institute spokeswoman Rachel Bauch told the Free Beacon.
Experts say the lack of transparency surrounding Ginsburg’s $1 million prize raises the possibility that some of the recipients could have had business before the court prior to Ginsburg’s death. One of the few known recipients, the American Bar Foundation, is affiliated with the American Bar Association, which filed several amicus briefs before the Supreme Court in 2020 before Ginsburg’s death. There is no evidence that Ginsburg recused herself from those cases.
The Berggruen Institute’s refusal to disclose which groups profited from Ginsburg’s $1 million prize comes as mainstream media outlets such as ProPublica have worked to instill a crisis of confidence in the Supreme Court over alleged ethical transgressions from conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Democrats such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) have seized on the reports to push a Supreme Court ethics law that Republicans say would overstep congressional authority. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the bill Thursday.
But experts told the Free Beacon that the left’s lack of interest in potential ethical lapses from Ginsburg betrays the partisan motivation behind their attacks.
"Ginsburg required that her list of entities she showered with funds be confidential and we don’t know how many of them appeared before the Court when Justice Ginsburg was serving," said former Office of Management and Budget general counsel Mark Paoletta, a longtime friend of Justice Clarence Thomas. "With all of the Left’s wailing about transparency, this is the antithesis—but crickets from the Left. They don’t care about ethics. They just want to attack the Court because it is no longer acting like a super legislature to enact unpopular progressive policies like affirmative action."
Nonprofit groups are typically required to disclose the names of groups they provided grants to in their public Form 990 tax returns. The Berggruen Institute evaded this disclosure by reporting Ginsburg’s prize on its 2019 Form 990 financial disclosure as an expense.
Former IRS tax law specialist Patrick Sternal described the institute’s accounting maneuver as a "workaround to the disclosure of the ultimate recipients of the funds."
"There is some legal gray area here, but the foundation should probably have treated the prize as a grant, not a line-item other expense," Sternal told the Free Beacon. "It’s strange that [Ginsburg] didn’t want to make the recipients’ names public."
Paul Kamenar, an attorney with the National Legal and Policy Center watchdog group, also said the Berggruen Institute should have disclosed the identity of the charities designated by Ginsburg in its financial disclosure.
Nicolas Berggruen, the institute’s founder, told the New York Times in 2022 he had a "very left-wing" upbringing. But the billionaire investor claimed he wasn’t involved in awarding Ginsburg the philosophy prize in 2019. That decision was left to the Berggruen Prize Jury, which in 2019 included former University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. The year prior, Gutmann helped Hunter Biden’s academically subpar daughter secure a ticket to the prestigious university at the behest of President Joe Biden, the Free Beacon reported. Gutmann became Biden’s ambassador to Germany in January 2022.
Ginsburg’s acceptance of the Berggruen Institute prize is hardly the only ethical lapse from the late justice, according to the liberal group Fix the Court. In 2018, Ginsburg embarked on a private tour of Israel paid for by billionaire Morris Kahn just one year after the Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of Amdocs, a company he co-founded in 1980. Ginsburg did not recuse herself from that case.
Ginsburg also attacked former President Donald Trump during a CNN interview in the lead up to his 2016 victory, saying she couldn’t "imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president." She later apologized for her remarks, but did not recuse herself from any case that the former president was a party to.
Other liberal justices have come under fire in recent weeks.
Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayor earned $3.7 million in book sales since joining the Court in 2009, thanks in no small part to using her taxpayer-funded staff to push colleges and other institutions to buy her books when she speaks at events, the Associated Press reported.
"The utter lack of curiosity from Senators Whitehouse and Durbin about liberal justices’ behavior only underscores their real motive," JCN president Carrie Severino told the Free Beacon. "Their sham charges against conservative justices aren’t about ethics but are instituting a new McCarthyism attacking their political enemies."