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Scotus Journal: Looks at books, Alito's 'oversight,' Breyer's mishap

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • Sotomayor's autobiography will help boost her finances
  • Alito admits error in 2008 ABC case
  • Breyer takes another spill on his bike

Editor's note: Scotus Journal is an occasional CNN feature on the Supreme Court. Bill Mears has covered the court and legal issues for CNN since 2002. He has reported on four high court confirmations and major cases across the country. Before that, he covered politics and national security for CNN.

Washington (CNN) -- Supreme Court justices like to say their job is mostly reading and writing, the kind of of dry, tedious legal briefs and opinions that are not designed to excite or engage. So no wonder many on the nation's highest court are discovering their creative side through an often lucrative side business of writing books.

Newly released financial disclosure forms reveal that Justice Sonia Sotomayor received a $1.175 million advance last year to write her autobiography. We already knew that the Bronx native was squeezing in time between her day job on the bench to pen her memoirs, but specifics on the advance show that it will be a nice boost to her modest finances, as revealed in the publicly released financial forms required of all federal judges. She is the only justice to report any credit card debt, in her case totaling less than $15,000 on four accounts.

In a release last summer, publisher Alfred A. Knopf (a division of Random House) called her upcoming work a "coming-of-age memoir by an American daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants."

The public records also show that two other high court members continue to receive royalties from recent books. Justice Stephen Breyer reported $60,000 from "Making Our Democracy Work" (also published by Knopf), released in October. He has been busy in recent months traveling the country, promoting his look at the court's precedent-setting power.

And Justice Antonin Scalia reported about $40,000 last year for "Making Your Case" (Thomson West), which he co-authored, an instructional manner of sorts at helping lawyers persuade judges. Although published three years ago, it continues to sell modestly well.

Another autobiography is due in September, when retired Justice John Paul Stevens offers personal reminisces on the five chief justices he worked with over the past 65 years or so. That includes the current head of the federal judiciary, John Roberts. "Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir" (Little, Brown) will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the secretive court.

It is rare for a current or recently retired member of the court to offer personal thoughts about his colleagues. Many court watchers wonder how much detail and criticism the 91-year-old Stevens will discuss, now that he not longer sits on the bench.

Other recent justices who penned works include Justice Clarence Thomas and his 2007 best-selling autobiography; the retired Sandra Day O'Connor, who has written her own memoir and a children's book; the late William Rehnquist, who preferred short, engaging histories of American law cases; and William Douglas, who wrote the most books of any high court member.

Alito owned Disney stock during ABC case

Justice Samuel Alito admits that he made a mistake when participating in case involving television company ABC Inc. while owning stock in the network's parent company. Such a real or perceived conflict of interest would have normally required recusal.

The justice acknowledged that financial disclosure forms released last week showed his stock ownership was valued at about $2,000. The story was first reported by The Associated Press.

The case was Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, a 2008 dispute involving government efforts to punish TV network that air profanity on live or unscripted programs. ABC was among several parties on the case opposing fines and sanctions. The parent company is Walt Disney Co., a fact clearly noted in the various legal briefs filed with the courts.

Alito told the AP that his participation was an "oversight." He said his staff, whose duties include checking for potential conflicts when appeals are filed, failed to catch the Disney-ABC link. Federal conflict of interest laws say judges should not hear cases when they have a financial interest, however small, but there are no specific penalties for any violation.

The justices have near-absolute discretion to decide for themselves when to recuse. Alito did pull out of a 2008 dispute over the Exxon Valdez oil spill, since he then owned at least $50,000 in the energy company's stock.

Alito has since sold his Disney shares. That may now allow him to hear an upcoming separate appeal over television content, this one involving brief flashes of nudity and salty language aired when children may be watching.

Breyer's bicycle boo-boo

Bicycles and Stephen Breyer have an uneasy relationship. The 72-year-old justice suffered a spill on his two-wheeler over the Memorial Day weekend, breaking his right collarbone.

Local authorities confirmed that the accident happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Breyer has a second home.

The injury was not serious enough to keep him from making an appearance Tuesday at a historical society event in New York. But he failed to appear on the bench earlier that day, when the court publicly released its latest rulings.

Friends say Breyer likes the outdoors and enjoys bicycling and rowing.

In 1993, he had a nasty accident when a car stuck him in Harvard Square while he was on his two-wheeler. He suffered a punctured lung and broken ribs. To make matters worse, legal sources later revealed, the then-federal appeals judge left his hospital bed to travel to Washington and meet personally with President Clinton over a Supreme Court vacancy. He did not get the job, but who is to say that his injuries had anything to do with the job interview?

A year later, another vacancy opened up, and this time, a more fit Breyer was chosen for the high court.

While we are talking about bicycles, it seems Breyer likes talking about bicycles -- in court. In one of his famously colorful hypotheticals, he offered this gem from the bench in a 2008 case about the limits of enforcing patents:

"Imagine that I want to buy some bicycle pedals, so I go to the bicycle shop," he surmised. "These are fabulous pedals. The inventor has licensed somebody to make them, and he sold them to the shop, make and sell them. ... I go buy the pedals. I put it in my bicycle. I start pedaling down the road. Now, we don't want 19 patent inspectors chasing me or all of the other companies, and there are many doctrines in the law designed to stop that."

No word on whether Breyer's latest mishap was caused by faulty pedals.