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New Judiciary Regulations May Help Judges and Justices Hide the True Value of Their Luxury Trips

This does not bode well for the fate of the Justice Thomas referral over his disclosure omissions

Revisions to the judiciary’s financial disclosure guidelines that went into effect last week appear to make it easier for federal judges and justices to hide the true value of some of the more luxurious gifts — i.e., free travel — they receive.

At first blush, the changes seem innocuous, if not salutary: per an email sent Friday, they “require filers to disclose travel-related gifts and their values—rather than reporting such gifts as reimbursements—consistent with the Act’s requirements [and] provide guidance to filers on how to value gifts of travel […].”

Makes sense, no? But compare that to the actual text of one part of the revision, from p. 38 of this PDF:

Note: In the case of gifts related to travel, the filer’s estimate of value should be made in reference to the most analogous commercially available substitute (e.g., transportation aboard a private aircraft should be valued at the cost of a first-class ticket for a similar route on a commercial air carrier; travel aboard a private yacht should be valued according to the cost of a ticket on a commercial cruise with similar destinations, duration, and accommodations).”

This means when judges and justices fill out their disclosures, if any of them traveled for free on a private jet or took a free trip on a luxury yacht during the prior year, they can hide the true value of the gift by listing the cost of much cheaper accommodations, as everyone (but the judiciary) knows the difference in cost between private jet travel and “a first-class ticket,” and between a yacht trip and a “commercial cruise,” is astronomical.

“Previously, judges and justices hid the true cost of their more lavish freebies either by erroneously listing them in the ‘reimbursements’ section, where a dollar amount is not required, or by omitting them from their disclosures altogether,” Fix the Court’s Gabe Roth said. “These revisions are hardly an improvement.”

How might this loophole work in practice? Let’s imagine a justice receives a free private jet flight from the D.C. area to upstate New York, where Harlan Crow’s Camp Topridge is located, and a justice is a non-paying guest on a two-week-long cruise around the islands of Indonesia.

According to a Mar. 20 search on, the cost of a roundtrip ticket from Dulles to the Adirondack Regional Airport (SLK) via Boston in mid-July 2024 is, $1,031 ($689 first leg first class plus $342 second leg economy) — far less than the cost of a seat on a private plane. (There are no direct commercial flights between IAD, DCA or BWI and SLK, and there appear to be no first class options between BOS and SLK.)

The least-luxe option in the same timeframe from Mercury Jets, a private charter company, is $9,830 roundtrip before taxes and fees, though something closer to Crow’s plane, a Bombardier Global 5000, would cost $49,160 roundtrip to charter before taxes and fees.

In other words, the new regulations would appear to permit a justice to call his free private jet flight a $1,031 gift, when in fact the value could be nine to 48 times that.

Now about cruises: “travel aboard a private yacht should be valued according to the cost of a ticket on a commercial cruise with similar destinations, duration, and accommodations,” per the new note in the regs. After reviewing several travel sites, it appears that at the low end, a 14-day “commercial cruise” with an ocean-view room that makes stops in the Lesser Sunda Islands — akin to Justice Thomas’ 2019 trip — starts at $1,884 per person on Holland America, inclusive of taxes and fees.

Yet chartering a boat similar to Harlan Crow’s yacht, the Michaela Rose (six-plus cabins, none of which are interior-facing; steel hull; no sails, etc.), to make that voyage could easily cost upwards of $10,000 per person per day, or $280,000 total (74 times the cost of Holland America) for the Thomases, and might reach two or three times that. ProPublica estimated that the cost of the Thomases’ Indonesian vacation, private jet and yacht included, “could have exceeded $500,000” had they paid for the plane and boat charters themselves.

“The best way to estimate the true cost of private jet travel and yacht excursions is to search on any number of websites that will tell you the true cost of private jet travel and yacht excursions — not by doing ‘analogous’ guesstimating that will undoubtedly and by a huge margin undervalue the gift,” Roth said.

“This revision, and the fact that the Financial Disclosure Committee approved it in January when it should have been focusing on the Thomas disclosure-omissions referral, is not a good sign the Committee has any interest in fulfilling the critical oversight role that’s required of them.”

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