Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito fired off a preemptive defense in the Wall Street Journal before ProPublica reported his luxury trip with a Republican billionaire who later had cases before the court.
Alito in 2008 flew on the private jet of hedge fund billionaire and GOP megadonor Paul Singer to a luxury $1,000-a-night lodge in Alaska owned by another Republican donor who did not charge him for the stay, according to ProPublica.
Alito did not report the flight on his financial disclosures, according to ProPublica, which noted that the flight would have cost the justice more than $100,000 each way if he chartered it himself.
Singer’s hedge fund came before the court at least 10 times since the trip, including a 2014 case in which Alito voted with the 7-1 majority in favor of Singer’s hedge fund in its case against Argentina, leading to a $2.4 billion payout for the fund.
The report comes months after ProPublica reported on the luxury trips and lavish gifts Justice Clarence Thomas has received from Republican billionaire megadonor Harlan Crow.
ProPublica sent Alito a list of detailed questions last week but the justice on Tuesday refused to comment through a spokesperson and then published a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending against the upcoming report.
“ProPublica has leveled two charges against me: first, that I should have recused in matters in which an entity connected with Paul Singer was a party and, second, that I was obligated to list certain items as gifts on my 2008 Financial Disclose Report,” Alito wrote. “Neither charge is valid.”
Alito wrote that it is “incorrect” to suggest that his failure to recuse created an “appearance of impropriety.” Alito claimed that it “would be utterly impossible” for his staff to determine all individuals associated with an LLC and argued that “even if I had been aware of Mr. Singer’s connection to the entities involved in those cases, recusal would not have been required or appropriate.”
Alito argued that his interactions with Singer have been limited and that the two have “never talked about any case or issue before the Court.”
“He allowed me to occupy what would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat on a private flight to Alaska,” Alito wrote. “It was and is my judgment that these facts would not cause a reasonable and unbiased person to doubt my ability to decide the matters in question impartially.”
Alito also wrote that he believed he was not required to disclose the trip under the court’s rules at the time.
“When I joined the Court and until the recent amendment of the filing instructions, justices commonly interpreted this discussion of ‘hospitality’ to mean that accommodations and transportation for social events were not reportable gifts,” he wrote. “The flight to Alaska was the only occasion when I have accepted transportation for a purely social event, and in doing so I followed what I understood to be standard practice.”
Alito wrote that he stayed for three nights in a “modest one-room unit” at the lodge, “which was a comfortable but rustic facility.”
“As I recall, the meals were homestyle fare. I cannot recall whether the group at the lodge, about 20 people, was served wine, but if there was wine it was certainly not wine that costs $1,000,” he wrote, adding that he only agreed to take a seat on a flight that “would have otherwise remained vacant.”
“It was my understanding that this would not impose any extra cost on Mr. Singer. Had I taken commercial flights, that would have imposed a substantial cost and inconvenience on the deputy U.S. Marshals who would have been required for security reasons to assist me,” he added.
Legal experts hammered Alito’s unreported trip and his attempt to defend it.
Leah Litman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, called Alito’s op-ed “beyond parody.”
“Here you have a Supreme Court Justice *admit* that they pay ‘little personal attention’ to the ‘vast majority’ of cases that parties ask them to hear. and pout that it would be REALLY HARD for them to try and figure out whether they have an interest in all of these cases,” Litman tweeted.
“‘It’s OK that I secretly flew to Alaska on this private jet because it had an empty seat!’ is the comically bizarre excuse of a man caught red-handed, and yet it is still more persuasive logic than anything Alito wrote in Dobbs,” tweeted Mark Joseph Stern, who covers the Supreme Court for Slate.
“When you’re trying this hard to justify why you weren’t unethical, maybe just don’t,” wrote Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Don’t accept the private flight to Alaska. Report it if you do. Do support a code of conduct so the rules are clear going forward and you don’t get into this situation.”
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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., raised questions about the op-ed.
“First, who orchestrated this weird pre-buttal with the infamous WSJ Polluter Page, and did Alito get help from a PR firm? If so, who paid?” he tweeted, questioning Alito’s reasoning for determining that he did not need to disclose the trip.
“He just happened to be flying to Alaska and there just happened to be a private jet going to Alaska with an empty seat, and he just happened to find that out, like on some weird billionaire shared-ride Uber?” Whitehouse wrote. “Oh, and would that ’empty seat’ trick fly with legislative or executive ethics disclosures? (Hint: no.) And how about with the Financial Disclosure Committee? (Right, you didn’t ask.) This just keeps getting worse.”
Experts told ProPublica they could not identify another single instance of a justice ruling on a case after receiving an expensive gift from one of the parties involved.
“If you were good friends, what were you doing ruling on his case?” Indiana Law Prof. Charles Geyh, an expert on recusals, told the outlet. “And if you weren’t good friends, what were you doing accepting this?”
Georgetown Law Prof. Abbe Smith, who co-wrote a textbook on judicial ethics, said that if she had a client who learned the judge took a gift from the other party she would immediately move for recusal.
“If I found out after the fact, I’d be outraged on behalf of my client,” she said. “And, frankly, I’d be outraged on behalf of the legal system.”
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