WASHINGTON — The nine Supreme Court justices in total are worth at least $24 million. Or it might be closer to $68 million.
It’s impossible to get more specific than that. That’s because federal ethics laws require justices to disclose only those assets that might pose a conflict of interest. As a result, the public can only assess part of each justice’s holdings, valued in a broad range.
But the most recent numbers, which come from the justices’ 2021 financial disclosures released last year and analyzed by Bloomberg News, show that at least six of the Supreme Court justices are multimillionaires. That means the judges, appointed to make decisions affecting millions of Americans, are significantly richer than around 90% of them.
In the wake of recent ProPublica reports exposing Justice Clarence Thomas’ close relationship with a GOP megadonor, Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocates have ramped up scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s ethics rules. Democrats have reintroduced bills to set new ethical standards for the Supreme Court, called for hearings into the court’s recent conduct and asked Chief Justice John Roberts to testify. Republicans point out that the donor, Texas real estate investor Harlan Crow, hasn’t been involved in any case that reached the Supreme Court.
Court experts say that significant gaps remain even in the available disclosures, which also include information on spouses and dependent children. None of the justices are required to list the value of their personal residences or the contents of their government retirement accounts. These are often the biggest assets people own, said Gabe Roth, executive director of advocacy group Fix the Court.
The review of the Supreme Court’s financial disclosures shows that Thomas is not the only justice leading a privileged lifestyle. Although he and his colleagues on the bench are expected to act as neutral arbiters of the law, advocates argue they bring their life experiences with them as they weigh in on cases concerning issues related to class, including student debt relief, renter’s rights, disability claims and labor unions.
The financial disclosure policies that apply to the U.S. federal judiciary, enacted in the late 1970s, specifically state that the disclosures are not supposed to represent net worth. Instead, they are meant to flag potential conflicts of interest, such as investments in companies that come before the Supreme Court. Justices have recused themselves from cases involving companies in which they had a financial stake. But the disclosures are relatively narrow, in part due to concerns about protecting the judges’ privacy, according to the regulations.
As a co-equal branch of government, the court has argued it has discretion to set its own ethical rules. But Democratic lawmakers for more than a decade have introduced legislation that would impose oversight of the Supreme Court, including establishing a code of ethics to ensure the justices are not improperly influenced and an independent group to review the high court’s conduct.
Roberts is the richest of the Supreme Court justices, reporting between $9 million and $27 million in assets. That includes a waterfront cottage in Maine, located on an island accessible only by boat, which is valued at an estimated $250,000-$500,000 per year, and part of a cottage in Ireland, valued at less than $15,000.
Roberts also owns individual stocks in telecom company Charter Communications and lab equipment firm Thermo Fischer Scientific Inc. His house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is not included in his disclosures, but the property is valued at around $2,203,800, according estimates by real estate marketplace company Zillow.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh by far reported the least in assets. Kavanaugh, who has spent most of his career in government service, reported assets between $15,000 and $65,000. But he may be worth more because of the loopholes in the disclosure rules, which do not require him to disclose federal retirement plans or his property. His home, a half-mile away from Roberts’ in Chevy Chase, is worth about $1.7 million, according to Zillow.
Justice Samuel Alito reported assets worth between $2.9 and $7.4 million, including dozens of individual stocks. As a result, he had to recuse himself from seven cases last year and two already this year. Alito’s stake in pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson forced him to recuse from a landmark case involving women who say they developed ovarian cancer due to the company’s talc products. In 2008, Alito had to recuse himself from a case in which the court cut the punitive damage award against Exxon Mobil Corp. for the 1989 Valdez oil spill to $507.5 million from $2.5 billion. Alito’s absence left the court evenly split on a separate Exxon argument that might have wiped out the entire award. Alito or his wife sold between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Exxon stock in 2015.
Alito’s ownership of individual company stocks is not unique on the bench. Roberts also owns individual stocks, disclosures show. Like Alito, he has had to recuse himself from cases in which he had a financial interest.
Several of the justices are landlords, according to their financial disclosures. Justice Elena Kagan earned between $1,000 and $2,500 in rental income from a Washington property in 2021. Sonia Sotomayor rents out a New York property, valued somewhere between $1 million and $5 million, for somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000 a year. The high court last year blocked part of New York’s eviction moratorium, siding with a group of landlords over tenants.
The justices collect an income from the Supreme Court, although it’s much less than the millions they would all make in private practice. Roberts makes $298,500 annually; the rest make $285,400.
Several of the justices have side gigs as professors. Under the rules, they are only allowed to make about $30,000 from teaching, a common job for the justices to pad their salaries, one that does not involve giving legal advice to any particular parties. (The roughly $30,000 is adjusted slightly for inflation every year.) But there are no specific caps on how much they are allowed to make from book deals.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett collected $425,000 in royalties in 2021 for her book, which has yet to be released. Justice Neil Gorsuch received more than $250,000, Sotomayor collected more than $110,000 and Stephen Breyer, a former justice, got about $8,000. Several of the justices received more than $1 million advances for their book deals, an increasingly common trend among Supreme Court justices.
Richard W. Painter, University of Minnesota Law School professor, served as the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “We have a court that may be out of touch with America in a whole lot of different ways, and one of those ways is wealth,” he said.