Critics elevate call for SCOTUS ethics probe as court lawyer defends Alito

Critics elevate call for SCOTUS ethics probe as court lawyer defends Alito
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in 2017, Wikimedia Commons

Demands for a congressional investigation into potential ethics violations at the U.S. Supreme Court intensified Monday after a lawyer for the court refused to answer questions from two lawmakers about allegations regarding Justice Samuel Alito.

Ethan Torrey, legal counsel for the high court, responded to a letter from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) dated November 20, in which the lawmakers had asked a series of questions about a bombshell New York Timesreport detailing a former anti-abortion activist's efforts to gain access to Supreme Court justices.

Rev. Rob Schenck, former president of right-wing group Faith & Action, described to the Times how he urged his group's supporters to donate to the Supreme Court Historical Society and attend its events. He also alleged that Alito leaked the court's decision in the contraception-related case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to Faith & Action donors.

Whitehouse and Johnson, who respectively chair the Senate and House Judiciary Courts Subcommittees, asked Chief Justice John Roberts and Torrey to explain whether "the Supreme Court opened an investigation into any of the allegations set forth" by Schenck and whether the court has "reevaluated any of its practices, procedures, or rules related to judicial ethics, or the justices' receipt and reporting of gifts and travel."

"Who is responsible for policing the relationship between the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Historical Society to ensure that paid membership in the Society is not used as a means of gaining undue influence?" the lawmakers asked.

Torrey's letter on Monday did not address Whitehouse and Johnson's questions, instead simply reiterating an earlier denial of wrongdoing by Alito himself.

"Justice Alito has said that neither he nor Mrs. Alito told [Faith & Action donors] the Wrights about the outcome in the Hobby Lobby case," Torrey said. "The justice never detected any effort on the part of the Wrights to obtain confidential information or to influence anything he did in either an official or personal capacity."

Torrey also wrote that the Wrights had not had a "financial interest" in the Hobby Lobby case or other cases before the court, suggesting that therefore, Alito could not have violated ethics rules by "accepting meals and lodging" from the couple.

Chris Kang, chief counsel of court reform group Demand Justice, called the claim that "there is nothing to suggest" an ethical breach "laughable."

Torrey's dismissal of Whitehouse and Johnson's concerns and his refusal to launch a probe made it clear that congressional committees tasked with overseeing the courts "must respond with an actual investigation," Kang said.

In their earlier letter to Roberts and Torrey, the lawmakers wrote that if the court "is not willing to undertake fact-finding inquiries into possible ethics violations that leaves Congress as the only forum."

In response to Torrey's letter on Tuesday, Johnson and Whitehouse did not indicate whether they will actually launch a congressional probe now that the court has refused to conduct one.

"Through legal counsel, the Supreme Court reiterated Justice Alito's denials but did not substantively answer any of our questions," said the lawmakers. "The court's letter is an embodiment of the problems at the court around ethics issues."

Johnson, Whitehouse, and the public "don't have to just take Sam Alito at his word," said Molly Coleman, executive director of the People's Parity Project. "Congress can—and must—investigate."

"Supreme Court justices have avoided accountability for too long," said Coleman. "It's time for our elected officials to do their job, and serve as a true check on the judiciary."

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