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A Staggering Tally: Supreme Court Justices Accepted Hundreds of Gifts Worth Millions of Dollars

Following the groundbreaking reporting from ProPublica and other outlets, FTC ventured to compile all the SCOTUS gifts, found a few unreported ones

Ahead of tomorrow’s expected release of the justices’ financial disclosure reports, Fix the Court today is unveiling a list of the gifts the justices have received over the years, and the numbers are staggering: in the last two decades (Jan. 2004-Dec. 2023), the justices have accepted 344 gifts valued at $2,993,036.

If one includes another 101 gifts that Justice Thomas likely received over those 20 years — mostly comprising free trips to and free stays at Bohemian Grove and Topridge worth $1,787,684 — that number jumps to 445 gifts valued at $4,780,720.

See a list of all the gifts here.

All told, the number of gifts FTC identified that were accepted by the current nine, plus the eight who’ve left the court since 2004 (Justices Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) is 546, valued at $4,755,147. Adding in Thomas’ 126 likely gifts since his confirmation, that tally comes to 672 gifts valued at $6,592,657.

These numbers are largely based on last year’s groundbreaking work by ProPublica and includes data from stories in the New York Times, L.A. Times, the congressional record, annual disclosures and FTC’s own research, led by law clerks Olivia Rae Okun-Dubitsky and Ashley Alarcon.

“Supreme Court justices should not be accepting gifts, let alone the hundreds of freebies worth millions of dollars they’ve received over the years,” Fix the Court’s Gabe Roth said. “Public servants who make four times the median local salary, and who can make millions writing books on any topic they like, can afford to pay for their own vacations, vehicles, hunting excursions and club memberships — to say nothing of the influence the gift-givers are buying with their ‘generosity.’ The ethics crisis at the Court won’t begin to abate until justices adopt stricter gift acceptance rules.”

The numbers are the numbers but on the low end:
The total number and value of the gifts (672 / $6,592,507) is most likely an undercount. Based on ProPublica’s reporting, FTC calculated the number of visits to Topridge and Bohemian Grove, as well as free tickets to Dallas Cowboys and Florida Panthers games, for example, but erred on the low end.

Similarly, thanks to an article by D.C.-based attorney Stephen Bruce, FTC was able to tally many of the hunting trips Scalia took that would not count as personal hospitality — i.e., the hunting lodge was commercially owned or Scalia arrived via private plane. But FTC was not able to verify the ownership of some of the hunting lodges by press time. The hospitality and/or gifts offered by Gayle and Donald Wright to Scalia and Justice Alito were also omitted from the tally. Plus, three justices since 2005 died while in office, and deceased justices do not file disclosures, so the gift hauls of Rehnquist, Scalia and Ginsburg might also be undercounts.

Behind the data:
The tally includes the amount of principal and interest — $253,686 — we believe Tony Welters forgave in 2008 for the luxury RV he gifted to Thomas the decade before. FTC’s numbers include the tuition gifts, $144,400 across six years, Thomas received for his grandnephew.

The tally captures the value of Thomas’ yacht trips to Russia, the Greek Isles and Indonesia, as well as some new information on the Thomas flights Tony Novelly paid for and the Scalia and Alito fishing trips Robin Arkley paid for that’s included in the congressional record. The value of the gifts Scalia received on his ill-fated trip to Marfa, Tex., in 2016 are also included.

FTC estimated the value of most of the medals, plaques and trophies the justices received over the years and didn’t list on their disclosures — and there were several dozen, including 62 accepted by O’Connor — at $200, i.e., under the gift-reporting threshold. Several similar awards were accepted by Ginsburg, many of which have been auctioned off by the Potomack Company to benefit various charities. That said, in some instances — namely for three of Ginsburg’s recent awards, two of which appear to be above the reporting threshold — FTC reached out to the gift-givers to inquire about value and is waiting to hear back.

Other awards unearthed by FTC include a blanket and gift basket Minnesota Law gave to Chief Justice Roberts; personalized Louisville Slugger bats given to Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett by the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center; silver julep cups given to Gorsuch by UK’s Heyburn Initiative; and football “gear” (likely a sweatshirt) and a skybox ticket given to Justice Kagan by the University of Wisconsin. Vague gifts from FTC’s open records requests — a photograph UF Law sent to Thomas, an “engraved gift” URI sent to Sotomayor and a something UW sent to Kagan — are also included.

FTC notes that several entities Thomas listed on his 2000 and 2002 disclosures as “reimbursing” him for “private plane” travel did not, in all likelihood, own private planes at the time (e.g., high schools, small colleges, civic organization, etc.). Those flight-legs were then gifts, 20 in total.

A fairly significant portion of several justices’ gift haul came in the form of honorary memberships at various golf, tennis and social clubs. These types of free memberships were largely outlawed by a law Congress passed in 2008, which is why they mostly drop off the tally after that year.

The reason FTC is focusing on the last 20 years is two-fold: first, it was 20 years ago that the L.A. Times filed its oft-referred to report on the justices’ gifts, and second, the record of the justices’ disclosures gets a bit fuzzy before 2004, since throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the early 2000s, the justices’ disclosures were typically only available for inspection at the Supreme Court and were only later distributed by the judiciary on paper, in a thumb drive or on a database.

In terms of crunching the numbers, the tally counts “meals” and “lodging” as two separate gifts, and FTC counted each leg of a round-trip flight as one gift, so it’s two gifts per round-trip. Unless otherwise stated, FTC assigned the cost per hour of a flight on a private plane to be $10,000 (can range from $5,000 to $25,000-plus, depending on plane size and other circumstances). Awards accepted by retired justices were not included.

Justices’ gift-reporting threshold by year: 2023-2025: $480 | 2020-2022: $415 | 2017-2019: $390 | 2014-2016: $375 | 2011-2013: $350 | 2008-2010: $335 | 2005-2007: $305 | 2002-2004: $285 | 1999-2001: $260 | 1981-1998: $250

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