June 29, 2012 / 5:04 PM / 5 years ago

High court for sale: Sotomayor magnets, anyone?

NEW YORK (Reuters) - What would Scalia do?

That might sound like a rhetorical question about Antonin Scalia, the reliably conservative Supreme Court justice with a razor-sharp wit.

But at cafepress.com, a popular online bazaar, WWSD is not an intellectual query. It is a suite of 110 products featuring an image of the justice, ranging from a hoodie (white with black silhouette of Scalia's head, $49) to a 10-pack of refrigerator magnets with photo, $40). These constitute just a sliver of the site's SCOTUSware. There's also a $5 decal of the neoclassical building, a $10 coaster featuring a portrait of Justice Clarence Thomas and various "Wise Latina" magnets that nod to Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"Perfect for latinas of all backgrounds! Show the world your wisdom," reads a description of the item.

One of the most momentous Supreme Court terms in recent memory has drawn to a close, but the tchotchkes keep coming. Perhaps surprisingly, given all the attention the court has received, some vendors say it hasn't exactly been a banner year. Sales of Supreme Court merchandise have been flat or slightly down at places like the official souvenir shop at One First Street, run by the Supreme Court Historical Society; Northern Sun, a Minneapolis-based retailer that sells T-shirts with political messages; and CafePress.

Lackluster sales can't be blamed on limited options. At any given time the gift shop at the Supreme Court, for example, is stocked with 1,000 to 1,500 items, ranging from cuff links to mugs to tote bags.

Yet even as crowds outside the court protested and celebrated the landmark healthcare ruling on Thursday, the gift shop was quiet. Business is typically slow this time of year, when school is out, said Kelly Harris, who works on product development and merchandise acquisition for the store.

Still, Harris said many items are popular with tourists. Among them: a pocket-size calendar featuring the seal of the Supreme Court ($4.95) and "Chef Supreme," a cookbook published last year with recipes offered by the spouses of the justices in honor of the late Martin Ginsburg, husband of Justice Ruth Ginsburg ($24.95).

While the justices themselves have sometimes purchased gifts for dignitaries at the store, most shoppers "are just here to pick up that vacation trinket," said Harris, who identified a $1 gavel-headed pencil as the store's all-time best-seller. The shop sells tens of thousands each year, she said.

"For some reason, people young and old love this pencil," said Harris. "It's just a standard pencil, but on top of it, instead of an eraser it splits in half like a gavel and there are two erasers."

"THERE ARE ALWAYS LAWSUITS"

If ever there were a time to cash in on the court, this would be it. Since its most recent session kicked off in October the Supreme Court has tackled a host of issues that would seem to be a sloganeer's dream, from "fleeting expletives" on TV to illegal immigration to Thursday's Affordable Care Act ruling. A media frenzy has surrounded many of the decisions, with the court seeking to crack down on rogue Twitter operations and electronic devices in the courthouse.

Yet these developments have not translated into a sales boom for marketers the way other news-cycle phenomena have - think Linsanity, the Super Bowl or even the presidential election.

Tina Nelson, creator of the board game Lawsuit!, says the Supreme Court's high-profile lineup of cases doesn't make a difference to her bottom line.

"You know what? There are always lawsuits, so I don't think any individual lawsuit is going to make a difference," she said.

One reason might be the rarefied nature of the high court's work. "To most people, the decisions of the Supreme Court are a little removed from their lives," said Scott Cramer, owner of Northern Sun, which sells T-shirts and other items featuring progressive messages. Following the controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010, in which campaign spending limits on corporations were ruled unconstitutional, Cramer began offering a "Supreme Corp" T-shirt.

Cramer said the shirt has sold well enough—about 300 per year. He has no plans to offer a shirt based on any of the court's decisions this term.

Another possible explanation: The public's regard for the court has deteriorated. Last month the Pew Research Center reported that the Supreme Court's favorability rating had reached a new low. In a nationwide survey that was conducted after oral arguments in the healthcare case, only 52 percent of Americans offered a positive view of the court, down from 57 percent, the previous low reached in 2005 and 2007.

The most likely reason for lower sales related to the high court is that in an era of rampant self-promotion, the court is simply too low-key to move much merchandise.

"They've been careful to stay out of the public eye," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow with the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. "It doesn't surprise me we didn't see an uptick in sales."

Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Douglas Royalty and Prudence Crowther

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