When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died at a Texas resort last weekend, he was staying in a 1,100-square-foot, $700-a-night room overlooking a lake.
This trip was one of hundreds taken by the Supreme Court justices in recent years, but its exclusive and private nature — with Scalia and three dozen other unidentified people gathered at a remote resort — has drawn new attention to how much is known about the high court and how its members travel.
When justices do venture outside of Washington, the tabs are frequently picked up by outside organizations. A review of annual financial disclosure forms filled out by the justices shows that in recent years, Scalia and the eight current justices took at least 365 trips for which an outside group picked up some or all of the tab.
“We live in a world now where all the Supreme Court justices are rock stars,” said Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at Chapman University. “They’re invited all over the place. They publish their books, they go on book tours…. People just like to have them around.”
Scalia was the group’s most prolific traveler since 2011, the first full year during which he and the eight sitting justices served together.
He was reimbursed for travel-related expenses by outside groups 23 times in 2014, the last year for which data is available, and nearly 100 times since 2011. At the other end of the spectrum was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who reported five such reimbursements since 2011. The other seven justices fell somewhere in between.
However, these disclosure forms provide scant details about the activities of the country’s Supreme Court justices, men and women who have lifetime appointments to the court. Justice Elena Kagan returned to Princeton University, her undergraduate alma mater, for a speech in November 2014. The disclosure form lists the location, date, type of event and says that she was being reimbursed by Princeton for her transportation, hotel and meals; the form does not state, and does not require, the total cost of the trip and who attended the speech.
Judges cannot accept anything of value from someone with a case in their court, and they are required to report travel-related reimbursements that total at least $375, an increase over previous years, according to the filing instructions sent out last year.
But these instructions include an exemption covering “food, lodging or entertainment received as a personal hospitality,” which is described as a person letting a justice stay at their home or property owned by them or their family.
This is a sizable loophole, one that may have extended to Scalia’s trip to west Texas last weekend, according to Stephen Gillers, who teaches legal and judicial ethics at the New York University School of Law.
Scalia was staying at the 30,000-acre Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort billed as the home of John B. Poindexter. The Texas native, who owns the Houston-based J.B. Poindexter & Co., told The Washington Post that Scalia, a friend and 35 other people were not charged for room, board and beverages.
But it is not obvious that an all-expenses-paid stay at at resort in southwestern Texas would fall under the “personal hospitality exemption,” Rotunda said. He said that if you invite a justice over to your house for dinner, that would not necessarily require a disclosure.
“I’m not sure if several days at a resort ranch would qualify as an exemption, because that’s more than ordinary social hospitality,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to invite you for dinner; it’s another thing if I invite you for dinner for a week at my house in Hawaii.”
The fact that it’s hard to tell speaks volumes, said Gabe Roth, who runs Fix the Court, a one-man nonprofit dedicated to increasing the court’s transparency. While justices take trips that do not get listed, such as paying for their own visits to see their grandchildren, he said this trip would appear to be different. One of Poindexter’s companies was party to an age-discrimination lawsuit that the Supreme Court declined to hear last year.
“An individual who had business before the court, just a few months ago, paid for his lodging; that’s something that should be reported,” he said. “But there’s really no oversight, either in terms of an outside body or even an internal ethics office that would normally catch that.”
The financial disclosure forms filled out by the justices are required by the 1978 Ethics in Government Act but are not publicly accessible on the court’s website. Outside groups, such as OpenSecrets.org, purchase paper copies from the court, then upload the files. Justices, like other judges, have to report income earned from investments and other sources, spousal income, financial liabilities, and reimbursements from outside groups for food, transportation, lodging and entertainment.
More than half of such reimbursements were paid by colleges and universities for justices’ teaching and speaking engagements. For instance, Scalia received reimbursements in 2014 for teaching and lecturing from 12 different universities as far-flung as the University of Hawaii and the University of Zurich.
Other groups are happy to pick up justices’ travel bills, too. Roughly 17 percent of justices’ reimbursed travel was to events sponsored by bar associations and other legal groups, while nearly a third of the trips were paid for by a variety of other groups and organizations, including think tanks, museums, media organizations and even a few wealthy individuals.
Scalia traveled at the behest of the conservative Federalist Society at least 10 times between 2011 and 2014, the disclosures show, making it the most frequent organization to appear in any one justice’s disclosures.
In 2012, Justice Stephen G. Breyer attended events at the center-left Brookings Institution and Annenberg Foundation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, who has been called on to recuse herself from same-sex marriage cases after officiating at same-sex weddings, made a 2014 appearance before the International Women’s Health Coalition, a group that advocates for reproductive rights. That same year, she was called on to recuse herself from an abortion case after she was critical of a Texas law. The justices are permitted to decide for themselves if they have a conflict, a practice the chief justice has defended, and Ginsburg participated in both cases.
The disclosure forms also reveal other aspects of the justices’ lives. In 2013, for instance, financier David Rubenstein flew Breyer out to a late-summer wedding in Nantucket — the disclosure doesn’t specify who was getting married.
The year before, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. received a free trip to New Jersey to be inducted into the National Italian-American Hall of Fame. Also in 2012, Ginsburg traveled to New York to accept Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year award, which came with a gift bag valued at $2,500, per her disclosure form.
Justices rarely disclosed individual gifts on their forms. One notable exception is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who in 2011 reported a $1,400 gift of fine china from “the Butler family” and a $6,000 “translucent composite print” from one Robert Weingarten.
In other years, Sotomayor added a note to the “Additional Information” section of the form explaining that “many people sent me gifts of books, art, jewelry and trinkets. I have no reason to believe that any of those items exceeded the [reporting] limit. If I should learn otherwise, I will amend this form.”
Only Sotomayor and Scalia reported liabilities on their disclosure forms. For several years, she listed up to four credit card debts below $15,000 for Discover, Visa, MasterCard and American Express. She also reports a mortgage on a rental property in New York valued at between $250,001 and $500,000 dollars. The only liability reported by Scalia was a loan on a life insurance policy valued at less than $15,000.
Roberts, though, has publicly questioned whether the justices even have to report this information, writing in his annual report for 2011 that the justices have “never addressed whether Congress may impose those requirements on the Supreme Court.”
But, he added, they comply regardless, effectively suggesting that the justices were only voluntarily disclosing their finances.
“That issue will never get resolved,” Gillers said. “Congress doesn’t want to push it, and the court doesn’t want to confront it.”
Gillers also said that there’s a public relations element to this, since the justices don’t want to seem like they “go off and do whatever they want” throughout the year.
“They don’t want to send a signal that they’re above the law, even though they think they might be, or at least these laws,” he said.
It is unlikely the issue will ever be confronted, Gillers said. “And if it does require a resolution, who will decide it? The judges.”
Alice Crites, Jerry Markon and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.
[This story, first published at 6 a.m., has been updated.]