Earlier this week, ProPublica, which had previously exposed the bottomless corruption of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, scored another big hit on Justice Samuel Alito, who is best known for citing a medieval witch-burner as a legal authority in his Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. The report recounts how Alito allegedly broke the law and violated all manner of judicial ethics by accepting a gift of a fancy fishing trip to Alaska from right-wing billionaire Paul Singer. The 2008 trip included a seat on a private jet, valued at $100,000, accommodations at a fancy hotel, $1,000 bottles of wine and “multicourse meals of Alaskan king crab legs or Kobe filet.”
The details are infuriating, but not surprising because Alito tried to get ahead of the story by writing a “prebuttal” for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which ended up reading as a confession to deep and long-standing corruption. The justice tried to write the whole thing off as a minor excursion, dishonestly downplaying how fancy the trip was.
Plenty of people have dunked on Alito’s efforts to treat fine wines and private jets like a humble camping trip, so I won’t bother here.
No, what was really remarkable to me was just how whiny Alito’s op-ed read. Here is a man gifted with so much power and prestige, and apparently many free, fancy vacations, yet he talks like a man who can’t catch a break in life.
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Alito expects women to stoically undergo forced childbirth as penance for the sin of fornication, but when asked to be a little less greedy, he reacts like he just got framed for murder. Anyone who has followed Alito’s career isn’t all that surprised, of course. He’s the same justice who heckled President Barack Obama during a State of the Union address for speaking a plain truth about money’s corrosive effect on politics. Alito then histrionically declared that a leaked draft of his opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health made the justices “targets of assassination,” even though he himself has a history of leaking. Indeed, as many pointed out, the Dobbs leak was awfully convenient for Alito, who was waging a pressure campaign on Justice Brett Kavanaugh to join the decision.
The justice tried to write the whole thing off as a minor excursion, dishonestly downplaying how fancy the trip was.
But while Alito is an especially comical example, the grim truth is that “petulant crybaby” is the dominant personality trait of the conservative justices, now a majority.
Kavanaugh, of course, famously had a crocodile tears breakdown during his confirmation hearing where he insisted that he was the real victim after sworn witness Christine Blasey Ford told her story of being sexually assaulted by him in high school. Thomas, for his part, often reacts to criticism of his hackish opinions by comparing his plight to a cheated-upon spouse, which befits a lifetime of him regarding himself as a victim who deserves to be avenged. Justice Amy Coney Barrett recently gave a self-pitying speech about how unfair it is that the public thinks the Donald Trump-appointed majority consists of “a bunch of partisan hacks.” Recall that Justice Neil Gorsuch threw a tantrum over the expectation that he wear a mask in court during the pandemic, even though at least one colleague, Sonia Sotomayor, has a high-risk condition. Even Chief Justice John Roberts, who often gets praised as a grown-up in the press, has proved to be anything but. His recent refusal to testify about the lack of court ethics before the Senate was bratty and patronizing, making it clear he thinks he owes nothing to the people he allegedly serves.
As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick said, they are “acting like small children.”
Beyond just being conservative, what these whiny justices have in common are strong ties to the right-wing Federalist Society and its former head/current board member Leonard Leo. The legal fraternity has received a lot of press for its role as a training ground for future far-right judges and lawyers, but what ProPublica’s reporting shows is that its influence goes well beyond that. As ProPublica reporters Justin Elliot, Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski note, “Leo is now a giant in judicial politics who helped handpick Donald Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees and recently received a $1.6 billion donation to further his political interests.”
He’s also the guy who keeps hooking up justices with billionaires who will shower them with fancy vacations as gifts. Leo is the one who set Alito up to go on this expensive fishing trip with Singer, a man Leo likely knew because both he and Singer are heavily involved in spreading money around to buy the federal courts for far-right interests. He plays a similar role in the friendship of Thomas and his billionaire benefactor, Harlan Crow. They’re all so tight, in fact, that the infamous painting of Crow and Thomas together at Crow’s lavish estate also features Leo.
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As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo writes, “Somewhat like some colleges or the service academies match a sponsor family with first-year students or cadets, Leo seemed to do that with incoming Supreme Court justices.” Calling it the “Sugar Justices” program, Marshall contends that “the justices remain ‘kept’ in perpetuity by the right-wing activist donor network.”
Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick concurs: “It’s like the oligarch Big Brothers program for underprivileged jurists who just want to live large on the hog.”
Beyond just being conservative, what these whiny justices have in common are strong ties to the right-wing Federalist Society and its former head/current board member Leonard Leo.
Defenders of the justices argue that all this largess doesn’t matter because the justices are already conservative and likely to vote the way these billionaires want anyway. But that’s not actually true. For one thing, people like Singer have personal business cases before the court that might have gone the other way if they weren’t buddies with the justices. But even on the larger ideological questions, there are reasons to think Leo and his billionaire allies are smart to keep spoiling “their” justices with goodies.
There’s a lot of pressure on Supreme Court justices coming from all sides. They are, as the public whining shows, sensitive to criticisms that their opinions are hackish nonsense instead of rigid legal reasoning. They also worry about the Republican Party, which can face political blowback if the court tacks too hard to the right. That’s what is currently happening with the Roe overturn, and likely why Kavanaugh was reportedly getting cold feet such that he needed a well-timed leak to keep him in line. Plus, there’s always a real chance that being presented with superior evidence and arguments from liberal lawyers will weaken their resolve.
I suspect that’s what these billionaire-funded right-wing summer camps are all about: ensconcing the justices in a bubble of validation for their kookiest far-right theories, all to protect their resolve to keep being the worst. It has to be pretty seductive. You’re on private jets, sipping unbelievably expensive wines, and chatting with some of the richest people in the world about how your authoritarian belief system is the One True ideology. Anyone can learn to silence self-doubt when soothed with Kobe steak, expensive cocktails, and a lot of talk about how much smarter you are than those irritating liberal lawyers, coming at you with all their facts and logic.
Well-heeled puffery makes it much easier to buy your own hype. The side effect, of course, is a dramatically weakened ability to handle criticism. The justices emerge from their cocoon of billionaire adulation only to hear that people in the real world think they suck. They simply cannot handle the dissonance.
Well-heeled puffery makes it much easier to buy your own hype. The side effect, of course, is a dramatically weakened ability to handle criticism.
They don’t suck! Do people who suck get free vacations to Alaska to watch bears from airplanes? Do people who suck get to travel to Indonesia on private superyachts? Do people who suck have fancy people fawning about their brilliance nightly over plates of caviar and crab? Clearly, the problem here isn’t your Alitos and Thomases, but those seething peasants who think they get to have an opinion.
I suspect that one reason Leo has done such a good job at getting billionaires to give him money is that he is excellent at the art of psychological manipulation. The corruption of the courts would never be anything as crass as a tit-for-tat exchange of fancy vacations for expected court outcomes. Instead, the money goes to creating a series of luxurious experiences for the justices that reinforce their own self-importance. On these vacations, they are no doubt immersed in hours of conversation about how their far-right legal theories are all good and true. Honestly, better people than they are could get brain-zapped by such tactics, but let’s face it, Leo is pushing on an open door with the Supreme Court’s conservative justices.
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