Supreme sell-off: Justices shed stocks to avoid conflicts

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DCNFKevin Daley, DCNF

Stock-holding justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are continuing a gradual sell-off of their shares, according to newly-released financial disclosure reports.

Just three members of the high court still own significant stock assets, though all three have shed holdings in recent years. Oversight advocates say the justices should avoid common stock ownership and place their financial interests in blind trusts to avoid conflicts. Federal law requires judges to recuse themselves from cases involving parties in which they hold a financial interest.

“On time, digitally released financial disclosure reports with a continued trend of stock sell-offs? We’ll take it,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a nonpartisan Supreme Court watchdog.

Chief Justice John Roberts sold three stock holdings, including shares of Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications giant, and Hill-Rom Holdings, a medical technology company. The Nokia holdings were valued at less than $15,000 while the Hill-Rom stock was valued between $15,000 and $50,000. The justices are only required to report investment and trust assets in ranges, not specific amounts.

The chief still owned shares in seven companies as of the end of 2017, including Sirius XM Radio and Time Warner Inc.

Justice Stephen Breyer also divested of three stock assets from Versum Materials and Air Products & Chemical — both chemical companies — and Cisco Systems, the California-based technology conglomerate. He still owns shares in nine companies, including Lowe’s Companies and Sysco Corp.

Justice Samuel Alito is the Court’s largest stock-holder, with shares in almost 30 companies. He sold holdings in Schlumberger Limited, an oilfield services company, and healthcare developer C.R. Bard.

Individual stock-holdings occasionally precipitate recusals at the high court, given the conflicts of interest they may generate. For example, Alito recused from a patent-infringement case called WesternGeco LLC v. ION Geophysical Corp in December 2017. Though the justices do not publicly disclose the reasons for their recusals, WesternGeco is a subsidiary of Schlumberger, which likely prompted Alito to step aside from the case.

He unrecused just one month later in January 2018, likely because he sold his Schlumberger assets on Dec. 12, 2017, eliminating the conflict.

On occasion, the justices have belatedly discovered stock-related conflicts. Breyer inadvertently participated in a Federal Power Act case despite the fact his wife owned stock in a company with a major stake in the outcome of the litigation. The case was argued in October 2015. Breyer sold the stock immediately following inquiries from Bloomberg News.

Roberts similarly recused himself from a 2016 patent case nearly a month after the argument because of a stock-related conflict. As with Breyer, the oversight was accidental.

The Court does not have a formal conflicts-check process, relying instead on each of the nine chambers to conduct their own review in each case.

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