It’s become a predictable pattern: The Supreme Court issues a controversial ruling on a hot-button social issue, and then Justice Brett Kavanaugh trends on Twitter. Earlier this month, it happened again after the court refused to block the recent Texas law that all but bans abortion. Almost immediately, hashtags like #WhoOwnsKavanaugh and #BrettsDebts blossomed across social media. The tweets are driven by frustrated liberals who continue to believe that the Trump-appointed justice has been bought off by a secret, deep-pocketed benefactor who has allowed him to live well above his judicial salary.
The frenzy is not merely predicated on the antipathy liberals have for this particular conservative justice, but on to the fragile hope that it might lead to ousting him from his lifetime appointment. As the novelist Greg Olear, who has devoted thousands of words to Kavanaugh’s finances on his Substack, explained after the Texas abortion decision:
“[T]here is nothing we can do about Barrett, Alito, or Gorsuch, and not much we can do about Thomas…But Kavanaugh is different. There is a clear playbook to removing him from the bench. And this is what must be done. Not because we don’t like his politics, although we don’t; not because we think he’s an asshole, although he is; not because he had a hissy fit at his confirmation hearing, although he did. No, we must remove him because at least twice in his life, some unknown entity endowed him with major infusions of cash, and Kavanaugh lied, under oath, about the provenance of that cash.”
Jon Cooper, a former Democratic majority leader of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge, NY, and a bundler for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, went so far as to offer a reward this month for anyone who could identify Kavanaugh’s benefactor. “I’ll donate $5,000 to the charity of their choice of any investigative reporter who finds out who paid off Brett Kavanaugh’s $200,000 credit card debts and $92,000 country club fee,” he tweeted to his 833,000 followers a few days after the abortion decision. Former Will & Grace star Debra Messing retweeted him, exclaiming, “I will MATCH that. Let’s go! If there is corruption in our highest court, the People must know.” Crime novelist Don Winslow went even farther, offering to add $50,000 to Cooper’s bounty.
I will add $50,000 to this. https://t.co/s2tqiaASjT
— Don Winslow (@donwinslow) September 8, 2021
The idea that Brett Kavanaugh has taken bribes to sustain his country club lifestyle is one of the hardiest conspiracy theories on the political left. And like most conspiracy theories, this one suffers from some internal logic problems. Yet lots of otherwise smart people who see conspiracy theories as solely a scourge of the right seem to believe it, in part because, as with so many such myths, the Kavanaugh conspiracy theory originated with a few facts. I laid them out back in September 2018 during his confirmation hearings:
“Before President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he had a lot of debt. In May 2017, he reported owing between $60,004 and $200,000 on three credit cards and a loan against his retirement account. By the time Trump nominated him to the high court in July 2018, those debts had vanished. Overall, his reported income and assets didn’t seem sufficient to pay off all that debt while maintaining his upper-class lifestyle: an expensive house in an exclusive suburban neighborhood, two kids in a $10,500-a-year private school, and a membership in a posh country club reported to charge $92,000 in initiation fees….No other recent Supreme Court nominee has come before the Senate with so many unanswered questions regarding finances.”
The vanishing debts, and their size, raised enough suspicion that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) even asked Kavanaugh in written follow-up questions whether he might have a gambling problem. (He said no.) Further concerns involved the purchase of his tony Chevy Chase, Md., house in 2006 for $1.225 million. How did Kavanaugh come up with a $245,000 down payment at a time when his financial disclosure forms indicated that he had a mere $10,000 in the bank outside of his federal retirement account?
As it turned out, there were rather simple answers to most of those questions. Kavanaugh explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that much of his credit card debt stemmed from either work on his fixer-upper mansion or buying Nats season and playoff tickets for himself and a handful of dudes who’d been going to the games together for years. They had paid him back in full, the White House said at the time. As for the rest, while he was maddeningly obtuse in admitting it, Kavanaugh seems to have gotten lots of money from his parents.
As I explained back in 2018, gifts from family don’t have to be reported on federal judicial disclosure forms, and Kavanaugh’s family had deep pockets. He’s the only child of a “swamp creature,” Ed Kavanaugh, a longtime lobbyist for the cosmetics industry who spent his career schmoozing with Beltway insiders to fend off health and safety regulations and dueling with activists who wanted to ban cosmetic testing on animals. When the elder Kavanaugh retired in 2005, his compensation package that year from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association totaled $13 million, according to the nonprofit group’s IRS filing.
Kavanaugh’s parents ensured he had a privileged upbringing—high school at Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington and an Ivy League education that seems to have left him without a whiff of student loan debt. Their largesse seems to have followed him into adulthood. As Kavanaugh explained in his written answers to Whitehouse: “We have not received financial gifts other than from our family, which are excluded from disclosure in judicial financial disclosure reports.” Rather than reveal any useful details that might have put an end to all the armchair speculation, he deployed opaque lawyerly language and wrote, “[I]t bears repeating that financial disclosure reports are not meant to provide one’s overall net worth or overall financial situation. They are meant to identify conflicts of interest. Therefore, they are not good tools for assessing one’s net worth or financial situation.”
Those answers, however, have not satisfied many on the left, who seem convinced that there is something nefarious afoot. In the past three years, a persistent conspiracy theory—though not QAnon level—has bloomed between the lines of what Kavanaugh has left unsaid about how he bridges the gap between his income and his cushy lifestyle. The basic theory goes something like this: Kavanaugh’s debts and mortgage down payment were paid for by some shadowy rich benefactor, as yet unknown, but possibly the Mercers, or maybe Leonard Leo, the vice president of the Federalist Society. A more elaborate version suggests Kavanaugh’s debts were only paid off after the suspiciously timed retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose son worked at Deutsche Bank for a guy who approved loans to Donald Trump and then killed himself. (What that suicide has to do with Kavanaugh is never made clear.) An even weirder scenario includes a convoluted link to the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein by way of Kavanaugh’s former boss, Clinton-era independent counsel Ken Starr; controversial Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; and former Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.
— Jim DePaolis (@wecanbanewforce) September 7, 2021
After the abortion decision this month, liberal media critic Eric Boehlert wrote a column on his Substack, PressRun, slugged, “We still don’t know who paid Kavanaugh’s $92,000 country club fee.” He blamed an “incurious press” for not digging further to find out the truth. “[S]ome deep-pocketed patron, or patrons, over the years have clearly covered Kavanaugh’s personal finances,” he wrote. “Someone erased all of the many financial pitfalls he faced, including tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, while setting up him for a luxurious lifestyle well beyond what he could afford on the salary of a federal judge.”
As a member of the “incurious press” who actually did dig into Kavanaugh’s finances, I reached out to Boehlert. He told me he doesn’t think asking these questions is the same thing as going down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. He thinks the media hold Republicans to a different standard and that Democrats also dropped the ball on investigating Kavanaugh’s money woes. “If Bill Clinton had joined a country club he clearly could not have afforded when he was governor of Arkansas,” Boehlert said, “that would probably have been a congressional hearing.”
There are good reasons why reporters didn’t delve more into Kavanaugh’s finances, not the least of which was that they were completely eclipsed by the charges leveled against him by Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when they were in high school. But the other reason is that there is no mystery there. Kavanaugh has, however obliquely, answered the questions to which liberals have demanded answers. Just because he hasn’t publicly disclosed—and isn’t required to produce—tax returns or other documentation revealing all the secrets of his wealth doesn’t mean that Kavanaugh has taken bribes. It also doesn’t square with what we know about him or about the way the federal judiciary works.
Here’s why: Say what you like about his jurisprudence and some of the odious people he’s worked for (i.e. Ken Starr), Kavanaugh has devoted almost his entire adult life to the judiciary. It’s hard to think of anyone who has been more single-mindedly determined to become a judge than Brett Kavanaugh. Perhaps it runs in the family: his mom was a longtime judge in the Montgomery County, Maryland, courts. Maybe he’s just fundamentally judgmental, a quality that might have appealed to Starr, with whom he authored the salacious report to Congress detailing Monica Lewinsky’s sexual encounters with President Bill Clinton. But the one thing that doesn’t seem to have driven his life choices is money. He’s a guy who wanted to be a judge, not a hedge fund manager.
Kavanaugh was a box checker extraordinaire from early on. After attending Yale College, his grandfather’s alma mater, he went to Yale law school. There, he joined the Federalist Society in its infancy in 1988. He clerked for (almost) all the right people, including Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan-appointed justice he later ended up replacing. He worked as a White House counsel and staff secretary to President George W. Bush and cozied up to the conservative power brokers who later ended up stocking virtually all of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominations. With his Yale pedigree and prestigious clerkships, Kavanaugh never seemed to escape his image as an overprivileged frat boy whose success stemmed more from political hackery than from a brilliant legal mind.
In 2003, when President George W. Bush tapped him for a seat on the very powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Democrats were outraged. Not only had he helped Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, try to bring down President Bill Clinton, but he’d also served on Bush’s legal team to challenge the outcome of the 2000 election at the Supreme Court. He also lacked significant legal experience outside of politics, having never tried a case, done any criminal practice at all, or served as a lower court judge. Kavanaugh was possibly the least experienced judicial nominee in 30 years. His nomination stalled.
But Bush nominated him again in 2003, 2004, 2005, and again in 2006, leading Sen. Dick Durbin to dub him the “Forrest Gump of Republican Politics.” On the last go-around, the American Bar Association downgraded their assessment of him to merely “qualified” for the job after interviewing a bunch of his former co-workers and judges he’d appeared before who took the opportunity to anonymously bash him as a condescending jerk who didn’t know his way around a courtroom. One judge he’d appeared before called him “sanctimonious” and said he demonstrated “experience on the level of an associate.” A lawyer said he’d “dissembled” in court, and another interviewee confirmed suspicions that he was a die-hard ideologue, noting that Kavanaugh was “immovable and very stubborn and frustrating to deal with on some issues.”
That confirmation meat-grinder might have been enough to persuade even the most hardened egomaniac to retreat to private practice, but Kavanaugh persisted. Eventually, on the fourth try, he finally landed on the DC Circuit. That same perseverance in the face of public shaming was on full display during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a debacle that also would have sent a lot of nominees fleeing to a quiet post in the ivory tower. Given all this, perhaps work as a judge was, in fact, his passion. As a Supreme Court justice, his salary is $268,300 a year, which in the elite rungs of the legal profession ain’t much. First-year associates in big law firms can command nearly such sums—the perennial argument for a huge increase in judicial salaries.
Kavanaugh, however, did not have to sacrifice his elite lifestyle—the country club, the Nats’ playoff tickets, the kids’ private schools, and whatnot—for this dream job, thanks to his family money. That’s why it’s improbable that he’s been bought off by the Koch Brothers: He doesn’t need the Koch brothers.
But there’s another major hole in the Kavanaugh conspiracy theory. None of its adherents seem to be able to explain why it would make any sense to bribe him.
Kavanaugh spent ten years as an appellate court judge before ascending to the Supreme Court. Bribing a federal circuit judge isn’t a very reliable way of getting the outcome you want in court. Appellate judges are randomly assigned to cases. They work in three-judge panels, and there’s always the possibility of an en banc rehearing or a Supreme Court ruling that can overturn them. Why would anyone illegally funnel money to an individual federal appellate judge? To do what? Reverse an EPA regulation? That’s probably why only two federal judges in the past 100 years have been impeached for bribery, and they were district court judges, where an individual judge has a lot more influence over a single case, criminal convictions, and potentially millions in verdicts.
A far more effective, and legal, strategy for swaying the courts in your favor would be to simply promote hundreds of predictably conservative judicial nominees at all levels who will vote exactly as you want in every single case, without needing cash under the table. And that’s exactly what corporate America has done over the past 40 years, funneling millions upon millions of dollars into groups like the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network to push reliable anti-regulatory, anti-abortion, pro-gun conservatives exactly like Kavanaugh on to the federal bench. Indeed, Donald Trump literally had 21 potential conservative candidates on his Supreme Court shortlist in 2016 that initially didn’t even include Kavanaugh.
Fueled by $22 million in anonymous donations, the Judicial Crisis Network pledged to spend as much as $10 million backing Kavanaugh’s confirmation. That sort of spending is another factor that helps keep the conspiracy theory alive. “There is an understandable concern about the influence of dark money on the federal judiciary,” says Jon Cooper, the Democratic activist who offered up the $5,000 to spur a Kavanaugh investigation.
He’s right, of course, but there’s a big difference between anonymous political donations and actual bribes, like, say, a secret benefactor paying off credit cards. Dark money in judicial nominations has paid for ads and advocacy—not to help Brett Kavanaugh buy a house he couldn’t afford, in 2006, 12 years before he was nominated to the Supreme Court. For that Kavanaugh conspiracy to hold up, someone would have had to have been playing a very long game with utterly unpredictable odds. In the end, there’s really only one answer to the questions about Kavanaugh’s finances that makes any sense: his longtime sugar daddy was his own daddy. Obviously, no one except the Kavanaugh family knows for sure. But Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest answer is usually the right one.
Call me crazy, but…imagine if the reporters assigned to the Major Biden beat were instead tasked with finding out who paid off Brett Kavanaugh’s debts…
— Kaivan Shroff (@KaivanShroff) September 6, 2021
It’s hard to feel too sorry for Kavanaugh’s plight as a gristmill for conspiracy theorists. Sexual assault allegations aside, he is also the man who spent three years and $2 million in taxpayer dollars torturing the family of Clinton White House Counsel Vince Foster. While working in the independent counsel’s office, he re-opened an investigation into Foster’s 1993 suicide at the urging of right-wing conspiracy theorists, who wrongly believed the Clintons had murdered Foster to coverup the Whitewater scandal.
The justice also could have put all of this conspiratorial chatter about his finances to rest three years ago by simply admitting what he intimated in his Senate responses about his family money. I recently asked the Supreme Court press office if he’d like to do so for this story. No one responded. He seems committed to maintaining the image he tried to portray in his confirmation hearing, that he’s just a regular “I-like-beer” kind of guy who succeeded through plain hard work, and not the wealthy Yale legacy whose father golfed with Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House.
Meanwhile, the current Twitter bounty for a successful investigation into Kavanaugh’s finances continues to grow. Cooper says he’s up to $85,000 from luminaries offering to chip in, and he’s been urged to start a Go Fund Me he estimates could rake in $250,000. He doesn’t want to create a fund, but he does hope his original offer will kickstart an investigation by journalists into Kavanaugh’s debts. I told to him that such an investigation would likely turn up exactly what I discovered three years ago. But like so many liberals I’ve explained this to, Cooper wasn’t convinced. He’s suspicious as to why Kavanaugh hasn’t just come out and admitted that his parents helped him financially. “Speaking on behalf of all liberals,” he said with a laugh, “it would be such a simple way for him to set aside the conspiracy theory. Lots of people have benefited from having well-to-do parents. I just don’t see the rationale for him not doing it unless he has something to hide. This is always going to taint his reputation until it’s clearly settled.”