Supreme Court justices embroiled in ethics scandals: From private jets and real estate to lavish gifts and secret recordings

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are raising questions about ethics and public trust in the Supreme Court.

Members of the Supreme Court
Members of the Supreme Court. Bottom row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan. Top row, from left: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Recent scandals involving the U.S. Supreme Court are raising serious questions about ethics and public trust, fueling a demand for transparency and accountability from members of the highest court in the land.

Unlike lower courts, the Supreme Court doesn’t have a clear code of ethics that prohibits the nine, lifetime-appointed justices from using their power to advance their private interests, according to the Associated Press.

Chief Justice John Roberts declined two invitations, in April 2023 and in May 2024, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the court’s scandals. Instead, Roberts and the eight other justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayer, Elena Kagen, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson — signed a “statement on ethics principles and practices,” which was made public in April 2023, though the statement seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

In July 2023, the Senate Judiciary Committee drafted the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act. The bill would have required the court to adopt an official code of conduct, but it was blocked by Senate Republicans on June 12.

Here’s a breakdown of the most recent scandals involving Supreme Court justices and, in some cases, their respective spouses.

📲 Samuel Alito: The secret recordings

Earlier this month, the conservative Justice Samuel Alito was heard admitting in a secret recording that it’s difficult for conservatives and liberals to live “peacefully” together because “there are differences on fundamental issues that really can’t be compromised.” He also appeared to agree to the idea of wanting to return the U.S. “to a place of godliness.”

The comments were recorded by activist and documentary filmmaker Lauren Windsor, who secretly recorded Alito while posing as a conservative at the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner on June 3, and posted to social media on June 10.

In a second recording shared by Windsor from the same event, Alito is heard blasting media outlets like ProPublica for going after him and Thomas, claiming that such outlets are “well-funded by ideological groups that have spearheaded these attacks.”

As of June 17, Alito has yet to publicly respond to the recordings.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr., left, and his wife, Martha-Ann Alito
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann Alito. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

🇺🇲 🎣 Alito: Flag scandals and fishing trips

In May, the New York Times published a photograph from Jan. 17, 2021, three days before President Biden’s inauguration, showing an inverted American flag displayed outside Alito’s home in Virginia.

The inverted flag was known to have been adopted by supporters of former President Donald Trump as a “Stop the Steal” symbol as he challenged the results of the election. Similarly, an “Appeal to Heaven” flag — a white flag displaying a green pine tree that was used during the American Revolution, but has since become a symbol for Christian nationalism — appeared to fly outside the family’s New Jersey summer home during the summer of 2023, according to the New York Times.

In a May 2024 letter to Congress, Alito said his wife, Martha-Ann, was the one who hung the inverted flag in response to a “very nasty” dispute involving former neighbor Emily Baden. On June 5, Baden told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Alito hung the flag “two or three weeks” before the aforementioned February 2021 dispute happened between her and Alito.

What’s more, ProPublica reported in June 2023 that Alito went on an luxury fishing trip in Alaska with billionaire GOP donor Paul Singer in 2018, without financially disclosing it. Although Singer’s hedge fund routinely works on cases that appear before the Supreme Court, the justice claimed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last year that he didn’t know about Singer’s connection to the cases in question.

💸 Clarence Thomas: Gifts, trips and real estate

In April 2023, ProPublica reported that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury vacations and gifts — including his mother’s Georgia home and his grandnephew’s private school tuition — from Texas billionaire and GOP donor Harlan Crow. The report said this had been going on for over 20 years and had not been reported on his annual financial disclosures, which experts say is required by federal law.

Days later, the Washington Post reported that Thomas has for years claimed between $50,000 and $100,000 of annual income from a real estate firm that’s been defunct since 2006.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (Cliff Owen/AP)

A September 2023 report from ProPublica showed that Thomas participated in at least two donor summits in 2018 on behalf of the Koch network, a right-wing political organization founded by libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which has brought multiple cases before the Supreme Court. At those events, Thomas reportedly dined with high-level donors and traveled on private jets, but didn’t disclose the expenses.

Earlier this month, Thomas acknowledged for the first time that he should have disclosed the trips, writing that he “inadvertently omitted” Crow’s gifts in previous filings and that he’s since “received guidance” about the process. Six days later, on June 13, the Senate Judiciary Committee uncovered three additional trips that Thomas took with Crow between 2017 and 2021 that hadn't been previously disclosed.

📚 Sonia Sotomayor: A real page-turner

In July 2023, the Associated Press reported that liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s staff pressured colleges and libraries where she had made appearances to buy “hundreds, sometimes thousands” of copies of her memoir and children’s books for attendees present. This helped to increase her book profits.

Penguin Random House, which published her books, also played a role in pressing institutions to commit to purchasing her books in bulk or requesting attendees to buy them in order to obtain tickets. As the AP reported, Penguin Random House has had numerous matters before the court in which Sotomayor didn’t recuse herself.

🏡 Neil Gorsuch: An undisclosed property sale

Politico reported in April 2023 that, nine days after conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court in April 2017, he sold a 40-acre Colorado property he co-owned to Brian Duffy, the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, a top law firm that’s been involved in at least 22 cases before or presented to the high court since the property’s purchase. Gorsuch claimed on federal disclosure forms to have made between “$250,001 and $500,000” from the sale, though he omitted Duffy’s name from the paperwork, which is not illegal.

While Gorsuch has yet to comment on the sale, Duffy claimed to Politico last year that he’s “never met” the justice. Once he learned that Gorsuch was a co-owner of the property, he said he cleared the sale with his firm’s ethics department.

👰 Scandals involving Supreme Court spouses

Martha-Ann Alito, along with her husband, Samuel Alito, was captured on an unflattering secret recording at the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner on June 3, where activist and filmmaker Lauren Windsor had been posing as a conservative guest. In the recording, released by Windsor earlier this month, Martha-Ann Alito is heard complaining about the display of Pride flags in their Virginia neighborhood, saying she wants to replace it with a “shame” flag. “I want a Sacred Heart of Jesus flag because I have to look across the lagoon at the Pride flag for the next month,” she added.

Ginni Thomas
Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, has spurred controversy for her support of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election as her husband was hearing cases on the issue.

According to reporting that surfaced in 2022, in the weeks after the 2020 election, Ginni Thomas exchanged text messages with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging him and others to challenge the election results, which she called a “heist.”

She then attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, before the former president’s followers stormed the Capitol. Ginni Thomas later told the Jan. 6 committee in December 2022 that she regretted sending the texts to Meadows.

Jane Roberts, wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, came under scrutiny last year when an ex-colleague alleged that she’d earned $10.3 million in commissions between 2007 and 2014 for her work as a recruiter for top law firms, some of which have business before the Supreme Court.

Roberts, a former attorney, began a career as a talent recruiter two years after her husband was confirmed to the court in 2005.

Kendal Price, a former colleague who had previously filed (and lost) a wrongful termination suit against her in 2014, wrote a letter to Congress in December 2022 arguing that justices should be required to disclose more details about their spouses’ work. In Roberts’s case, her husband characterized her compensation as a salary rather than commission, which Price said was misleading at best. If justices’ spouses have financial relationships with law firms arguing before the court, Price argued, it could compromise their impartiality.

Jane Roberts has yet to publicly acknowledge Price’s letter.