The Supreme Court justice did not report the identity of the purchaser, whose firm has had numerous cases before the court.
For nearly two years beginning in 2015, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch sought a buyer for a 40-acre tract of property he co-owned in rural Granby, Colo.
Nine days after he was confirmed by the Senate for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, the then-circuit court judge got one: The chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, one of the nation’s biggest law firms with a robust practice before the high court. Gorsuch owned the property with two other individuals.
On April 16 of 2017, Greenberg’s Brian Duffy put under contract the 3,000-square foot log home on the Colorado River and nestled in the mountains northwest of Denver, according to real estate records.
He and his wife closed on the house a month later, paying $1.825 million, according to a deed in the county’s record system. Gorsuch, who held a 20 percent stake, reported making between $250,001 and $500,000 from the sale on his federal disclosure forms.
Gorsuch did not disclose the identity of the purchaser. That box was left blank.
Since then, Greenberg Traurig has been involved in at least 22 cases before or presented to the court, according to a POLITICO review of the court’s docket.
They include cases in which Greenberg either filed amicus briefs or represented parties. In the 12 cases where Gorsuch’s opinion is recorded, he sided with Greenberg Traurig clients eight times and against them four times.
In addition, a Denver-based lawyer for Greenberg represented North Dakota in what became one of the more highly publicized rulings in recent years, a multistate suit which reversed former President Barack Obama’s plan to fight climate change through the Clean Air Act.
Gorsuch joined the court’s other five conservative judges in agreeing with the plaintiffs — including Greenberg’s client — that the Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its authority by regulating carbon emissions from power plants in the decision that makes it more difficult for the executive branch to regulate emissions without express authorization from Congress.
Duffy, who in addition to serving as CEO is chief of Greenberg’s entire 600-lawyer litigation department, said he has never personally argued cases before Gorsuch or met the justice socially.
“I’ve never spoken to him,” Duffy said. “I’ve never met him.”
Once he learned Gorsuch was among the owners, Duffy said, he cleared the sale with his firm’s ethics department.
Gorsuch did not respond to inquiries about the sale, his disclosures or whether he should have reported Duffy’s identity as the purchaser.
Supreme Court rules do not prevent justices from engaging in financial transactions with people with interest in court decisions, but Gorsuch’s dealings with Duffy expose the weakness of the court’s disclosure procedures. For instance, in reporting his Colorado income, Gorsuch listed as his source only the name that he and his two co-owners gave themselves, Walden Group, LLC. The report didn’t indicate that there had been a real estate sale or a purchaser.
Such a sale would raise ethical problems for officials serving in many other branches of government, but the Supreme Court sets its own rules. It has largely left justices to make their own decisions about when and how to report outside gifts and income.
Justice Clarence Thomas is currently under scrutiny for accepting lavish trips from GOP billionaire donor Harlan Crow, who also purchased three Georgia properties from the justice. Thomas did not report the property sales. Of the vacations, Thomas said he had been advised that “personal hospitality from close friends” need not be disclosed.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a frequent critic of Supreme Court ethics rules, sent a statement responding to POLITICO’s inquiry about Gorsuch’s sale of the Colorado property.
“We have seen a steady stream of revelations regarding Supreme Court Justices falling short of the ethical standards expected of other federal judges and of public servants,” said Durbin. “The need for Supreme Court ethics reform is clear, and if the Court does not take adequate action, Congress must. The Senate Judiciary Committee will be closely examining these matters in the coming weeks,” said Durbin, who has asked Chief Justice John Roberts to testify next month on the court’s ethics rules.
Kedric Payne, director of ethics at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said he believes “investments in LLCs require more details than the justice includes in his financial disclosures.“
“This transaction appears to also require naming the buyer. The public has a right to know that justices will fully comply with disclosure rules instead of providing only a tiny peek into their financial disclosures,” he said, noting more facts are needed to distinguish whether it’s a disclosure omission or violation. The center was founded by a Republican former chair of the Federal Election Commission.
Unlike Crow, who bought properties from Thomas, Duffy says he is neither a friend nor a confidant of Gorsuch. But he is one of the nation’s most powerful attorneys.
His Greenberg bio describes him as “A true ‘working CEO,’” and says he “focuses his practice on trial and appellate work in the class action, employment, energy, commercial contract, and product liability areas, serving as counsel in high-profile cases throughout the United States.”
At the time of the sale, Duffy had headed Greenberg Traurig for about a year. A search of his contributions to political candidates revealed that they went primarily to Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.). He contributed the maximum amount allowable for individual donors to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, though he also made contributions in the past to Republicans such as former Sen. John McCain of Arizona and a GOP New York City mayoral candidate, Joe Lhota.
The Duffy family has long resided in Colorado. Duffy attended the University of Colorado Law School and, in 2019, he was the recipient of the “most admired CEO” award by the Denver Business Journal.
Duffy, who described himself as an avid fly fisher, said he’d been looking for the right property for his family for many years. Duffy said he did not know Gorsuch was one of the owners when he made his first offer.
“The fact that he was going to be a Supreme Court justice was absolutely irrelevant to the purchase of that property. It’s a wonderful piece of property and we’re so glad we bought it,” said Duffy.
Gorsuch and his associates purchased the property in 2005 through their LLC, the Walden Group, which was dissolved after the 2017 sale. The home was originally listed, in July of 2015, for $2.495 million. The fact that the property had sat on the market for so long and that its price had been lowered a couple times suggests the partners were having trouble finding a buyer.
The real estate transaction is another example of how the lack of a firm code of ethics for the court stands in contrast to most other branches of the U.S. government, including the White House and Congress as well as lower court judges.
The code of conduct for lower court U.S. judges says judges should “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” and “discourages frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with lawyers or other persons likely to come before the court” on which the judge serves. Unlike many of the country’s state and federal courts, the Supreme Court lacks a code of conduct.
“This is exactly the type of situation that an ethics code that included vetting of transactions and full disclosure would clear up,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a progressive research organization. “Without decisive action, the conservatives on the Supreme Court will forever tarnish its reputation in our public life,” he said.
At the time of Gorsuch’s appointment, his ownership of the Colorado property drew attention only for the fact that his co-owners were major figures in the oil and gas industry. Gorsuch’s ties to the oil and gas industry run deep.
As a lawyer at a Washington law firm nearly 20 years ago, Gorsuch represented oil and gas billionaire Philip Anschutz on a variety of matters as outside counsel, and it was through this connection that Gorsuch befriended his future real estate partners.
Anschutz helped Gorsuch win an appointment to an open seat on a federal appeals court in Denver, including directly lobbying the George W. Bush White House.
Gorsuch’s connections to Anschutz extend to both of his prior real estate partners.
The Walden Group included Kevin Conwick, who had advised Anschutz in deals to buy sports teams and other projects like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Cannon Harvey, who oversaw Anschutz’s venture capital investment division.