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"Don't Forget About Us": Lower-Court Judges Are Accepting a Bunch of Gifts They Shouldn't Be Accepting

The types of freebies Supreme Court justices have received — private plane travel, stays at luxury accommodations, a vehicle and more — are popping up on lower-court judges’ disclosures

Fix the Court today is releasing a representative list of gifts that lower court federal judges — circuit, district, magistrate and bankruptcy — have received since 2021, most of which they shouldn’t have accepted. They include cash, free flights on private planes, free stays at luxury accommodations, free hunting and fishing trips, a pickup truck, jewelry and tickets to concerts and sporting events, among others — and these are just the gifts that have been reported on their disclosures.

They are reminiscent of some of the more luxurious gifts Supreme Court justices have accepted, albeit not reported in many cases, in recent years.

Among the 75 gifts on the list, FTC has rated 12 of them as “a problem” (red highlight), given obvious ethical implications; 53 as “pay your own way” (yellow), as in, the judge should have purchased the item(s) themselves; six as “likely okay” (green), since they were related to their judicial duties or from a partner; and five as “likely not a gift” (gray), i.e., items wrongly categorized on the disclosures. Of the 63 gifts accepted by presidential appointees (a dozen were taken by magistrate or bankruptcy judges), 33 were by Republican appointees, and 30 were by Democratic appointees.

“Federal judges and Supreme Court justices should not be accepting gifts, period,” Fix the Court’s Gabe Roth said. “The list we’re releasing today shows dozens of lower court judges, conservatives and liberals alike, are like their SCOTUS superiors accepting all sorts of expensive handouts that could implicate their impartiality — or at the very least are items they should be paying for themselves given their salaries and positions.”

Here are some of the more concerning gifts:

Fifth Circuit Judge Jacques Wiener, Jr., describes his 2021 and 2022 receipt of free hunting and fishing trips as “not a true gift” since they were given “on a reciprocal basis.” But that’s not how the disclosure law and regulations work. If someone other than a relative spends more than a certain amount, $415 in those years, for you to hunt or fish, it’s a reportable gift.

Elsewhere, N.D. Georgia Judge Timothy Batten, Sr., reported he received $4,000 in cash in 2021 and $24,000 in cash in 2022 from Medicraft Enterprises, which appears to be an India-based medical gown manufacturer. There are clues on Batten’s disclosure (e.g., his investment club) that this could be investment income and not a gift, but either way, it calls for a more explanation. Batten does get credit for listing a one-week stay at his friend’s Amelia Island, Fla., condo as a gift (worth $5,000) and not as personal hospitality since the wording makes it appear his friend was away at the time of the stay, and the word “hospitality” in the law presumes the owner is on the premises.

Judges are supposed to stay out of politics, but that could be challenging for W.D. Missouri Judge Gary Fenner considering his acceptance of two luxury trips, one to sun in Mexico and the other to fish in Canada, financed by one of the major players in Missouri politics, the Herzogs. Another free stay of interest was gifted to Eight Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender, whose hosts — and the very property he visited — appear to have been parties to a federal lawsuit in Gruender’s court. The judge accepted a two-night stay at a “rental home” owned by Joseph and Yvonne Cordell in 2022, and throughout 2021 and 2022 the Cordells had a CA8 case concerning a permit to rent out their home “on platforms such as Airbnb.” (Gruender wasn’t on the panel, and a rehearing en banc wasn’t requested, but it’s a strange coincidence.)

Another ethical quandary: gifts whose sources are redacted, including two gifts (2021 and 2022) valued at $4,800 each given to N.D. Georgia Judge Steve Jones.  E.D. California Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe received “miscellaneous items (small jewelry, jacket)” worth $1,000 from “redacted” in 2021 and 2022. These redactions make little sense and obscure potential conflicts.

Recall that Justice Thomas erroneously listed several private plane flights under “Reimbursements” and not “Gifts”? So did M.D. Tennessee Judge Aleta Trauger when disclosing a Christmastime 2022 trip to Wyoming, even though it comprised a combination of reportable gifts (flights on a private plane co-owned by former Tenn. Gov. Phil Bredesen and a bunch of LLCs) and personal hospitality (a stay at Bredesen’s Wyoming home).

College football tickets were scattered throughout the report, with Georgia offering tickets to multiple judges, as well as replica championship rings valued at $415 to two, N.D. Georgia Judge Steve Jones and S.D. Georgia Judge Lisa Wood, in 2022. N.D. Alabama Judge Scott Coogler accepted football tickets and, more interestingly, a 1964 Chevy pickup, apparently from a local repairman, and free tree removal and free hunting passes from a landscaper-turned-hunting-lodge-owner.

All told, free tickets (28 of 75 gifts) were the most common items given to judges: college football tickets were gifted 11 times in our survey; NBA basketball, five times; unidentified concerts, three times; baseball and golf, two times each; and classical music, theater, NFL football, college basketball and unidentified “sports tickets,” one time each. It’s our view that lower court judges, who make $223,836 (magistrate and bankruptcy), $243,300 (district) or $257,900 (circuit) a year, can pay for these items themselves.

The strangest gift might be the most recent one captured in our survey: at an Eastern District of Texas Bar Association conference on Oct. 26, 2023, actor Kevin Costner gave a talk over lunch, and E.D. Texas Judge Amos Mazzant estimated that his “meeting with Kevin Costner” at the event was valued at $500. We’re hard-pressed to figure out that math (a $200,000 appearance fee divided among 400 attendees? the cost of 15-min. talk with the actor?), and no physical items — not even a signed baseball or a Stetson — changed hands.

FTC law clerk Ashley Alarcon began the project earlier this month by capturing the gifts listed on circuit court judges’ 2021, 2022 and 2023 disclosures found in the online database. Given the large number of missing COA reports — a dozen from 2021, four dozen from 2022 and most of the 2023s — Alarcon and Roth expanded the search to include district court, magistrate and bankruptcy judges and performed keyword searches in the database (“tickets,” “private plane,” “jewelry,” etc.) to identify reports that mentioned gifts.

The gift-reporting threshold on disclosure reports was $415 in 2021 and 2022 and $480 in 2023.

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