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The Methodology Behind Our SCOTUS Gifts Report

By Gabe Roth, Fix the Court executive director

This spring, Fix the Court set out to capture all the gifts the justices, past and present, have received over the last three decades.

It’s our long-held belief judicial officers shouldn’t be accepting gifts, but before discussing discrete solutions, we thought it’d be helpful to understand the full scope of the problem.

We pored over years of disclosure reports, dug up old articles that mentioned private jet travel and cash prizes and found stories about various plaques, busts and bowls the justices have accepted but often failed to mention in their disclosures. We released our report on June 6.

Justice Thomas has accepted the most gifts during the time period we reviewed, and it’s not even close. And yet, it appears that his supporters believe a certain portion of these gifts are actually “personal hospitality” exempt from disclosure and shouldn’t count in our tally. They are wrong.

If a judicial officer spends the night at a “home” that’s actually a luxury resort or ship held by a company and not an individual — such as a yacht owned by Crow Holdings, LLC; a New York camp owned by Topridge Holdings, LLC; or a Texas ranch owned by CFH Mill Creek Company, LP — that is not personal hospitality under federal law and judiciary regulations. Nor is flying on a private jet owned by a corporation, such as HRZNAR, LLC.

They are reportable gifts, and FTC counted them as such.

According to the Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 2, Pt. D, Ch. 1, §170 (p. 6), the personal hospitality gift reporting exemption “does not include […] gifts extended at property or facilities owned by an entity, rather than by an individual or an individual’s family, even if the entity is owned wholly or in part by an individual or an individual’s family.”

Note that any edits made to the regulations in 2023 were, per the Judicial Conference, merely “clarifications,” meaning they’ve long been in place, whether or not judicial officers have chosen to follow them.

It should also be noted that FTC’s report is most likely an undercount. For example, the study did not include many pieces of art Justice Thomas has owned over the years since it’s plausible he purchased some himself, or, like the infamous Sharif Tarabay painting or the portrait for Yale Law, they’re not held by the justice. COVID impacted the numbers, as, for example, Justice Thomas was named the Benedict Leadership Award recipient in 2020, but it has not been made public if the bust that typically comes with it (here’s a picture of Leonard Leo’s) was ever delivered.

Because of Justice Thomas’ lack of transparency, there are certain gifts we categorize as “likely gifts.” We are still researching these, which is why we classify them as such. That said, we can say with confidence that Justice Thomas has accepted some $4 million in benefits since becoming a justice.

Finally, Fix the Court has operated for nearly 10 years as an even-handed arbiter, holding both liberal and conservative justices to account. We took Justice Ginsburg to task for her criticism of then-candidate Trump and her acceptance of large prizes, even when she donated them to charity; we have long called for Justice Sotomayor to recuse from petitions involving her book publisher; and we were the first to report on Justice Jackson’s disclosure omissions. We have always maintained the position that judicial ethics are not a partisan issue.

And yet, the aforementioned lapses pale in comparison with the largesse Justice Thomas has received — and to a large extent omitted from his disclosures — year after year.

We will not shy away from exposing this simply because it is inconvenient to certain powerful people.

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