On Monday, the Supreme Court responded to concerns about ethics brought by two Democratic lawmakers regarding a movement by religious conservatives to wine and dine some justices in an unusually aggressive and thorough manner.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) threatened a congressional investigation if the court did not conduct its own investigation into the charges. The court responded in a letter to them.
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The two-page letter from the Supreme Court’s legal advisor, Ethan Torrey, follows reports in POLITICO, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone about a concerted campaign by religious-right activists to encourage more conservative decisions by the justices by establishing relationships with them in social settings. It reiterates and expands on earlier denials of improper behavior issued by Justice Samuel Alito.
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) November 28, 2022
According to The Times and POLITICO, one of the campaign’s organizers, the Rev. Rob Schenck, claimed he was informed in 2014 of the impending conservative victory in the Hobby Lobby lawsuit regarding Obamacare’s coverage of contraception.
The Ohio resident Gail Wright and her husband dined with Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann, at their house a few weeks before the decision was made public, according to Schenck, who claims that this is how the ruling, written by Alito, first reached the public. Gail Wright has denied having knowledge of or passing on any such information.
“Nothing to suggest that Justice Alito’s actions violated ethics standards,” Supreme Court official writes after NYT story said dinner party allegedly produced leak to conservative activists about outcome of 2014 case. https://t.co/6vcQq1XaoL
— Greg Stohr (@GregStohr) November 28, 2022
Justice Alito has claimed that neither he nor Mrs. Alito informed the Wrights of the conclusion of the Hobby Lobby case’s ruling or the identity of the author of the court’s opinion, according to Torrey. The letter continues by labeling that claim “uncorroborated,” citing POLITICO’s report that months of investigation into the claim were unsuccessful in locating anyone who claimed to have directly heard from Alito or his wife about the decision in advance as well as the Times’ description of “gaps” in Schenck’s account.
Torrey vehemently denied the idea that the Alitos’ social connections broke any court regulations, guidelines, or customs. Nothing in Justice Alito’s actions suggests that they were unethical, according to Torrey. “Applicable laws strike a balance between prohibiting gifts that could erode public trust in the judiciary and allowing judges to retain regular personal relationships.”
After Whitehouse and Johnson criticized a letter the court issued them earlier this month, which included a number of generalizations about court procedures but did not specifically address their concerns about the lobbying effort by religious conservatives, the court responded in more detail.
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Whitehouse and Johnson claimed on Monday that the Supreme Court had avoided the crucial questions. The Supreme Court, they claimed, “repeated Justice Alito’s denials through legal counsel but did not substantively respond to any of our queries.
The Court’s letter embodies the ethical challenges that are causing the Court trouble. There is no formal process for complaints, unlike all other federal courts; it took numerous letters from a senator and a congressman to prompt a response.
A court spokesman made Torrey’s letter public in response to earlier news inquiries regarding the situation.