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Robbery highlights wealth, travel of Supreme Court justices

What was Stephen G. Breyer doing on a tiny Caribbean island when a family cottage was invaded? Turns out he and his colleagues are a well-traveled lot.

February 18, 2012|By David G. Savage and Ian Duncan, Washington Bureau
  • Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer visits the University of Chicago. He and his court colleagues travel widely on official and unofficial business.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer visits the University of Chicago.… (Terrence Antonio James…)

Reporting from Washington — Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer was at his Caribbean vacation home late in the evening one recent Thursday when a man wielding a machete cut his way through a screen door, walked into the living room and demanded "money, money, money," according to Colin Smith, the gardener.

The thief on the island of Nevis "looked more nervous than we were," Mary-Anne Sergison-Brooke, Breyer's sister-in-law, said in an interview from her home near Oxford, England. "Nevis is such a nice, friendly island. We were never that worried."

The encounter drew attention not only because of the prominent victim but also because of where he was spending the week, at his wife's family cottage in the West Indies.

These days, the Supreme Court justices spend much of their time away from Washington in the weeks when the court is not in session. And Breyer, who speaks fluent French and is married to the daughter of a British lord, is the most frequent flier of a well-traveled group.

He made two visits each to Paris and Cambridge, England, in 2010. And there were other trips to Luxembourg and Marseille and speaking trips to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and half a dozen other U.S. cities and college towns. In all, he made 23 trips in addition to vacation travel, according to his financial disclosure form.

The nine justices meet as a group in Washington only about 80 times a year. They spend much of their time reading briefs or writing opinions. And like workers everywhere, they have learned they can do much of their work electronically far from the office.

During this four-week winter break, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in Guam and Hawaii, teaching and talking about the law. Back home in New York, she appeared on Sesame Street when she judged a dispute between Baby Bear and Goldilocks over a broken chair. "Accidents do happen," Sotomayor observed, and she suggested Goldilocks help fix the chair.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg traveled to Egypt and Tunisia with her daughter to celebrate the "Arab Spring" on a trip arranged by the State Department. She raised eyebrows when she told an Egyptian interviewer she would not recommend America's "18th century" Constitution as a model, pointing to the South African Constitution as more fitting for a new democracy. She also spoke in New York at the Columbia Law School this month.

Breyer, a former Harvard Law School professor and judge in Boston, and his wife have a townhouse in Washington's upscale Georgetown neighborhood, but they have kept their nearly $2-million, six-bedroom house in Cambridge, Mass. The family has a summer home and 150 acres in New Hampshire. Breyer and his wife, Joanna, a psychologist and daughter of the late 1st Viscount Blakenham John Hugh Hare, go to Nevis in the winter, where they stay in a bungalow purchased by her mother years ago.

On the island, the justice has kept a low profile. He "is quite down to earth. He speaks to everybody. He's not stuck up or anything," said a woman who works at the Golden Rock Inn, a small hotel near the Breyer residence where the justice swims every morning. She asked not to be identified because she is not authorized to talk about guests.

In the robbery, the thief took about $1,000 in cash from Breyer, his wife, her sister and a friend. Afterward, Breyer was "as cool and composed as ever," the hotel employee said. No one was injured.

Nevis is a former British colony that was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. Breyer estimated the value of the house as between $101,000 and $250,000 in his financial disclosure. A family friend said it is about a mile from the sea.

Breyer is second to Ginsburg in personal wealth among the nine justices. The associate justices are paid $213,900 a year — the chief justice gets $223,500 — but Breyer and Ginsburg owe most of their fortunes to their spouses.

Though financial disclosure forms do not provide a precise figure of the justices' wealth, the Center for Responsive Politics used them to estimate that in 2009 Ginsburg had about $28 million, and Breyer $10 million, excluding some of their real estate. Next in line was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. with $3.6 million.

At the bottom was Sotomayor. In 2009, her debts exceeded her assets by $22,000, the center said. But the justice has signed a $1.1-million contract with a New York publisher to write a book about her early life.

david.savage@latimes.com

Ian.duncan@latimes.com

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