Look out for Supreme Court justices roving in motor homes and gigging abroad this summer

On the road with the justices of the high court.
On the road with the justices of the high court.
Image: public domain
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Like rare birds, US Supreme Court justices aren’t easy to spot, especially outside of Washington DC. But the justices do spread their wings in summer.

Unlike the rest of the federal judiciary, which works all summer, the high court breaks in June and resumes on the first Monday in October. Three months is a lot of vacation for Americans, who can count themselves lucky to get two weeks a year. But don’t judge the justices. They are industrious, even on holiday: Over the years, these unique creatures have been observed in unexpected places from Walmart parking lots to the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul.

Keeping up with the judges

In recent years, Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer have all written books. The long seasonal break no doubt allows for these literary endeavors. The justices also spend summers teaching and speaking around the world, supplementing their $250,000 annual salary with side gigs.

Take Justice Ginsburg, who is already jetting around for work. Her season began with a brief teaching stint in the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta in early July. There, New England Law School students got to hear her take on the past year’s high court cases. The Notorious RBG’s summer bookings also include speeches in Washington DC and Utah, a talk on Antonin Scalia’s legacy in Colorado and one on the American Dream in Illinois, plus a chat in New Mexico on her passion for opera.

The RBG Workout book cover.
If she can, so can we?
Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s a lot of running around but RBG has been keeping up her strength with a personal trainer, Bryant Johnson (who also works with Justices Breyer and Elena Kagan). In October, Houghton Mifflin will release the trainer’s illustrated exercise guide featuring the judge in robes, called The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too!

Other justices are also on the go. Justice Anthony Kennedy is teaching summer school in Austria for the McGeorge School of Law. Similarly, Chief Justice John Roberts will teach about the historical development of the US Supreme Court in New Zealand; perhaps his class will cover the changes that created his three-month summer vacation.

Justices used to work in summer

It wasn’t always this chill on the bench. The Judiciary Act of 1789 required Supreme Court justices to resume duties “by the first Monday of August.” They also had to cover circuit court cases around the country in July, a practice known as “riding circuit” that persisted for a century. It made the justice job less attractive, however, and eventually gave way to the extended vacation.

Some say that shorter vacations and double duty are not such a bad idea now. Northwestern University Pritzker Law School professor Steven Calabresi argues in a Minnesota Law Review article that more work and shorter breaks would effectively “rein in the Justices’ transatlantic legal dalliances” and encourage earlier retirement from the bench. Taxpayers, he says, shouldn’t let justices take summer gigs.

Even Roberts, who may now be fond of the long vacations, noted mockingly in 1983—long before he was the Chief Justice, while he was working as attorney for the Reagan administration—that “only Supreme Court justices and schoolchildren are expected to and do take the entire summer off.”

Perks of a tough gig?

The long vacation may be one of the few perks of the job if Justice Thomas is to be believed. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that the justice told California college students that being on the high court is tough because there’s “no money” and “no privacy.” The justice job is an honor, he said, yet “I wouldn’t say I like it. I like sports. I like to drive a motor home.”

Indeed, Thomas is known for his cross-country camping trips in a motor coach with his wife, Ginny Thomas. She told PRI in 2009, “We’ve been in dozens of Walmart parking lots across the country. Actually it’s one of our favorite things to do…you can get a little shopping in, see a part of real America—it’s fun.”

But if you see them, please don’t disturb. They prefer to go incognito when roving.

A tale of two sightings

A sighting can be exciting. Just ask attorney Talat Kayar, who in 2005 was a Brooklyn Law School student interning in Turkey for the summer, where he met two Supreme Court justices (he’d never before seen one in the US!). In Istanbul, Kayar took a constitutional law course with now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, who taught students “that the Ninth Circuit judges are a bunch of tree huggers.”

Sandra Day O'Connor and Talat Kayar in Turkey.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Turkey, 2005.
Image: Talat Kayar

He also got to see retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor use her supreme lawyering skills at the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s great historic markets. Kayar, who was raised in Brooklyn in a Turkish-speaking household, translated for the justice as she haggled with vendors over the price of darbukas, small traditional goblet drums she wanted to buy as gifts for her grandchildren.

“She was sharp,” Kayar tells Quartz. “She was a hell of a bargainer and got them down from something like 600 to 50 euros.”

This rare justice sighting was captured on film. Kayar keeps the image framed in the office of his law firm in Florida. “That was pretty much the highlight of law school,” he says. O’Connor retired from the high court the following year in 2006.

Finding the nest

Apart from work and play, justices have practical concerns. They have to take care of personal business. For example, junior justice Neil Gorsuch, who visited his home county of Boulder, Colorado to participate in the town of Niwot’s Fourth of July parade, just put his local house on the market for $1.7 million last month.

The house will likely sell this summer, Boulder luxury real estate agent David Carner told local reporters. Still, he doubts the justice’s fame will have much influence on price or speed of sale—it’ll just mean more visitors, and not necessarily prospective buyers. He predicts people will come to see the house on the off-chance they’ll spot the justice or at least get a glimpse of the rare bird’s natural habitat.