In front of a law-school crowd in 2015, Brett Kavanaugh mentioned the success of a younger attorney who worked as his deputy in the White House and became the general counsel of Facebook in 2008. Kavanaugh, who was a federal appeals judge at the time, had never heard of the company.
“That turned out to be a really good move,” Kavanaugh said, chuckling. “And I am committed to public service, as I said, but I do spend some time reading Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ ”
That path was the pursuit of riches in the private sector. In 2001, he left a private firm to join the White House, a move that slashed his salary by more than half but set him on a path toward the judiciary branch — and now, to the peak of his profession as a nominee for the Supreme Court.
He has in many ways stayed true to his intent, following the Jesuit mantra of service above self-instilled in him by the elite Catholic high school he attended in suburban Washington — volunteering his time by feeding the homeless and coaching girls basketball.
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But in a story that might ring familiar to some Washingtonians, the path has left him living a lifestyle on the outer edge of his means, mingling with the 1 percent social circles in a Chevy Chase neighborhood that has among the highest median incomes in the country.
Kavanaugh has reported credit-card debts that exceeded $15,000 for six of his 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At the end of 2016, those debts ranged between $45,000 to $150,000 and were spread among three credit cards, before being paid off sometime last year. A White House spokesman has said that Washington Nationals baseball tickets and home-improvement costs accounted for those debts but has not provided a detailed breakdown.
“There was never a hint of anything irresponsible about anything that he did,” said Bob Bittman, a Washington lawyer who worked with Kavanaugh in the Kenneth Starr-led independent counsel’s office. “But apparently he was in debt. I believe it was temporary or there was a plan to get out of it, or he was going to be repaid by friends. He’s not the type of guy who does things to keep up with the Joneses.”
The same year he accumulated the highest debts of his judicial tenure, Kavanaugh also joined the Chevy Chase Club — an elite country club that counts Chief Justice John Roberts among its members and, as of 2017, required a $92,000 initiation fee and annual dues of more than $9,000.
“It’s a place where your children can be on the swim team, learn to play tennis and play in an ice hockey league. It’s a family-focused environment,” said Helgi Walker, a Washington lawyer and friend of Kavanaugh’s who also belongs to the club.
When asked about the social status of belonging to such a club, she quipped about a Georgetown institution known for high-powered customers such as Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner: “If you want to see and be seen, you would go to Cafe Milano, not a country club.”
Kavanaugh declined to be interviewed for this article. He did not respond to questions about the nature of his debts or, in the case of the baseball tickets, answer why he would accumulate high-interest debt for friends.
A financial statement that was filed last month as part of the Senate vetting process reveals that Kavanaugh’s net worth, the calculation of what an individual owns minus debts, is around $942,000. The threshold for the top 1 percent of net worth in the United States is more than $10 million, according to recent survey data from the Federal Reserve.
Kavanaugh has government retirement accounts worth about $480,000 and more than $400,000 in equity in his home, which has a mortgage of $815,000.
He holds about $27,000 in cash accounts and drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee, which he values at $25,000.
The personal finances of Supreme Court nominees regularly come under scrutiny during the congressional vetting process, which requires financial disclosure forms and net-value statements that list debts and assets. In the cases of wealthy jurists, those with directly held stocks might face the choice of recusing themselves from cases in which their finances could pose conflicts or shedding stocks to avoid those ethical concerns.
In Kavanaugh’s case, the forms are revealing for another reason: They offer a glimpse into personal finances that have appeared shaky at times, including a recent year when Kavanaugh’s reported debt ranges could have exceeded what he had available in high-liquidity assets such as money-market or cash accounts.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh would become the justice with the fewest reportable assets, by a long shot. The last justice to enter the court with similar finances was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who accumulated credit-card debt because of a dental health issue. She later improved her financial well-being with the publication of a memoir that netted her a publisher’s advance of more than $1 million and substantial royalties.
The issue of pay for the judiciary branch has been a heated topic at times. After Roberts joined the Supreme Court, he quipped publicly about the issue.
“The dramatic erosion of judicial compensation will inevitably result in a decline in the quality of persons willing to accept a lifetime appointment as a federal judge,” Roberts wrote in his annual report on the federal judiciary in 2007.
By the nation’s standards, Kavanaugh is decidedly wealthy, with an annual salary of $220,000 that reaches far beyond the median income for a typical U.S. household. He also has a safety net that other families do not — familial wealth and the option, if needed, to forgo his government job and return to private practice. Kavanaugh’s father drew a hefty salary working for a cosmetics trade group and received a $13 million payout in 2005, as first reported by The New York Times.
Even as a young man, there were signs of privilege. He attended the exclusive Georgetown Preparatory School. His parents arranged for him to secure a junior membership at the Congressional Country Club in 1986, when he was in college. He paid to upgrade it to a full membership in 2000 and held that membership until 2017, when he had switched to the Chevy Chase Club.
“It was expensive for him to make the change,” Bittman said. “He was already a member of a country club, and when you leave, you don’t get your money back. He did that because it’s a few blocks from his house and the kids were going there and enjoying it.”
As part of the congressional vetting process, Kavanaugh was asked whether he had ever belonged to a club that engaged in discriminatory practices. Kavanaugh wrote, “Years before I became a member of the Congressional Country Club and the Chevy Chase Club, it is my understanding that those clubs, like most similar clubs around the country, may have excluded members on discriminatory bases that should not have been acceptable to people then and would not be acceptable now.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who also attended Georgetown Prep and clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, reports assets worth at least 55 times that of Kavanaugh. The comparison does not include houses or government retirement accounts, which are not reported on the justices’ yearly disclosures. Gorsuch, at 50, is three years younger than Kavanaugh but spent more time earning wealth in private practice — including a stint as partner at a law firm for more than seven years.
“You realize very early on in my industry that people are vastly different with their approaches to money,” said Jeff Porter, a chief investment officer at Sullivan Bruyette Speros & Blayney, a financial-planning firm in McLean, Virginia, who had no direct knowledge of Kavanaugh’s debts and spoke to The Washington Post about personal finance in general.
“Certainly living in the D.C. area there is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality. People who you may think are quite wealthy based on their spending or how they carry themselves are not actually that wealthy. And it all comes down to, are you continually saving?”
Kavanaugh worked in the solicitor general’s office in the early 1990s and spent two short stints at Kirkland & Ellis, a private law firm. He was unmarried and drew a yearly salary in the $200,000s, according to a person with knowledge of Kavanaugh’s finances who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private figure.
Several friends of Kavanaugh described him as frugal.
“He was never a guy who was very concerned about money,” said Scott McCaleb, a childhood friend. “And I don’t mean that in the way that he’s a child of privilege. Certainly his parents have means, but it’s just not the way that he thought.”
When he returned to government service, this time in the George W. Bush White House in 2001, he took a pay cut of more than half. At the time, a burst pipe had left the 36-year-old lawyer with wet belongings and a flooded apartment. So he dialed up Bittman, an old colleague from his days in the independent counsel’s office.
“Brett had just been to a party at my house and had seen that it was a nice house and that I didn’t have any roommates,” recalled Bittman, who lived in Maryland in single-family home in Chevy Chase. “He asked if he could join me there.”
Kavanaugh moved into a spare bedroom and paid monthly rent during the first few months of his job at the White House.
“I almost never saw him. He was working all the time,” Bittman said. “Sometimes I would see remnants of pizza boxes.”
At the same time, as Kavanaugh established his legal and family reputation, he went about adopting the trappings of a 1-percenter — and accumulating large amounts of debt in the process.
When he was nominated by Bush to the D.C. Circuit judgeship in 2003, Kavanaugh reported no debts, according to a net-worth statement filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee. After he married Ashley Estes, he filed an updated statement in 2005 that reflected $25,000 in credit card debt.
Kavanaugh was confirmed as a federal appeals judge in 2006 — earning a salary of $175,000 at the time. He has supplemented his income by teaching law courses, which brings in $27,000 a year.
The same year he became a judge, Kavanaugh and his wife purchased a $1.2 million home in the Village of Chevy Chase Section 5 — a small geographical area in Maryland with a 2010 census count of 658 residents.
Within Montgomery County, it takes a $650,000 household income to make it into the 1 percent. Kavanaugh and his wife — who draws a $66,000 salary as the town manager — make less than half of what it would take to meet that threshold.
“Most of the families are two-income families,” said Monica Mastal, a real-estate agent whose daughter plays on a basketball team that Kavanaugh coaches. “To live here, it is expensive. Not everybody here earns a million dollars, even if that is the perception.”
The Kavanaugh family received an income boost of at least $150,000 in 2014, as federal judges across the country received back pay for delayed cost-of-living increases, according to the person familiar with the judge’s finances.
The year after receiving the back pay, Kavanaugh’s wife returned to the workforce after four years spent at home taking care of their two daughters. The person familiar with Kavanaugh’s finances said that the back pay and the second source of income helped stabilize the Kavanaugh family’s financial health, especially with private-school expenses.
Both daughters, Margaret and Liza, attend the private Blessed Sacrament School, where tuition costs $10,275 per child each year. The Kavanaughs plan to keep their daughters in private education through the 12th grade, the person said.
Despite living in a top public-school district, Kavanaugh views the price tag of a Catholic education as a necessary expense, those close to the family said. He has publicly said that his Catholic school upbringing played a significant role in shaping his values.
The real-life subject of Kavanaugh’s Frost metaphor is Ted Ullyot, the former White House aide under Kavanaugh who went on to earn millions as the general counsel for Facebook.
Ullyot, when asked in a recent interview, seemed surprised that Kavanaugh had mentioned him in the context of comparing career paths.
“He’s never shown any trace of envy or anything like that,” said Ullyot, who is a Silicon Valley investor. “Any lawyer would give anything to be in his position now. That’s the highest honor.”
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites, Andrew Ba Tran and Steven Rich contributed to this report.