As the Supreme Court closes out another term, Americans now have yet another scandal to process concerning the nation’s highest court, this one involving Justice Samuel Alito. On June 20, ProPublica reported that Alito spent three fun-filled days in 2008 at an upscale lodge in Alaska, reeling in salmon and rubbing elbows with Paul Singer, a right-wing billionaire whose private plane ferried Alito to said wilderness redoubt. The redoubt itself was owned by yet another right-wing magnate, Robin Arkley II. The plane trip and the accommodations were provided gratis to the good Justice, who then failed to report them as gifts and to recuse himself when entities connected with Singer brought cases to the Court. One of these, decided in Singer’s favor in 2014, netted his hedge fund a cool $2.4 billion thanks to Alito and six other justices.
These revelations were as unsurprising as they were dispiriting, given the tranche of recent exposes about the overlapping social circles of conservative Supreme Court Justices and Bond villain-rich conservative donors. The Alito news joined a spate of stories about BFFs Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, in which the Walmart-loving Justice was identified as the recipient of decades of financial and other support from the Dallas real estate magnate, and earlier reports about the frequent canoodling of the late Justice Antonin Scalia with various denizens of the Republican pecuniary pantheon.
These stories are now frequent enough to have accreted their own rituals of response and defense. First comes the pearl-clutching indignation of the Justice himself, protesting that no “reasonable person” could possibly think he had an “obligation” to report or recuse, and then the covering fire from the Right’s network of publicists and apologists. The Wall Street Journal huffed that the Alito reveal was “a non-scandal built on partisan spin” which constituted a “political assault on the Supreme Court” and “judicial independence.” The only novelty in this latest “non-scandal” would seem to be the Journal’s decision to publish Alito’s rebuttal before the ProPublica story itself appeared. (When Alito told ProPublica that he would have “no comment” on their story, he apparently meant “No comment that won’t appear in a major national newspaper friendly to me and mine.”)
Of course, even ideologues as cossetted as Alito have a sense of what a plausible defense against such charges requires. A purely technical (if highly selective) recitation of relevant guidelines for reporting and recusing won’t pass muster with the general public; something more demotic and direct is necessary. (But for those interested, there’s nothing quite like the high comedy of Alito’s exploration of the meaning of “facilities” in his WSJ response.) And so, after all the parsing and hair-splitting, we come to the heartfelt, rough-hewn denials. Alito, after a rumble of throat-clearing no doubt, assured everyone that where Singer was concerned “On no occasion have we discussed the activities of his business, and we have never talked about any case or issue before the Court.” Singer himself was similarly emphatic. He and Alito “never discussed his business interests,” he said through a spokesperson. And besides, how could he have known, in 2008, that a case would arise years later resulting in a $2.4 billion payday? You can almost hear the tremolo of injured innocence in his voice. It’s hard to be a robber baron.
Masters of the Universe such as Singer and Crow and their plutocratic familiars are far too slick to get caught arm-twisting a Supreme Court Justice.
I’m not very interested in the surface details of this denialism. The ProPublica article quotes legal ethicists who argue that Alito’s duty to report and recuse should have been clear to him. Then again, given the absurdly lax nature of the ethical rules for the Court, I’m more than ready to believe there was enough wriggle room to make Alito’s demurrals plausible if not persuasive. I’m more interested in the unspoken assumption that anything wrong here, anything that could count as corruption, must take the form of relatively crude horse trading and quid pro quoing. I respectfully suggest that this is a straw man even an Alaskan salmon could identify.
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What it hides, or tries to hide, is the fact that Masters of the Universe such as Singer and Crow and their plutocratic familiars are far too slick to get caught arm-twisting a Supreme Court Justice. The principals in these scandals want us to believe that corruption must take the form of bulging envelopes passed on dark rain-soaked streets or in the hallways of luxe vacation lodges. But that’s not how it works, not when it comes to the super-rich and high-profile persons such as Samuel Alito or Clarence Thomas. It’s too obvious, too vulgar, and—- more to the point—- too indictable. Everyone these days has a camera in her pocket, financial transactions are too traceable, and exactly how much can you buy for what fits inside a garden-variety envelope? How dreadfully twentieth century.
The first, best option of the oligarchs is not extortion but assimilation: If they can colonize the mind, the results will be both more reliable and more subtle, and hence less susceptible to interference.
What the Singers of the world want is not so much a particular decision in a particular case—- though they do, of course, want that too—- but a relationship, an alliance over time. They want to create an atmosphere in which their concerns and interests will be treated tenderly. The intent is not to extort a specific result, but to lure a powerful and influential person into an opulent world of apparent grace, style, and charm. In this world everyone, or almost everyone, is well-educated and articulate; attention is paid to detail and tasks are thoughtfully tended to. Care is taken. Corners are turned down and loose ends tied up, but all this energy and activity float on a smooth surface of undulant ease.
The expectation is that these qualities will recommend themselves to people whose minds tend to love order but whose personal resources prevent them from realizing it on a similar material scale. As this happens, the interests and priorities of the rich, their values and desires, come to seem reasonable, then natural, and then, finally, normative. How could a world so successfully managed not be a source of virtue and talent, of insight and instruction? An outsider who finds himself inside of it, if only as an occasional (though welcomed) guest, may eventually find himself unable to believe that what its permanent residents want is different from what the country needs.
It is certainly possible that the robust denials of Alito and Thomas, and the earlier denials of Scalia, are completely cynical. Maybe they know they’re being bought and simply don’t care. But I doubt it. The first, best option of the oligarchs is not extortion but assimilation: If they can colonize the mind, the results will be both more reliable and more subtle, and hence less susceptible to interference. My guess is that Alito and his ilk, at this point, don’t see themselves as doing anything at all problematic. They carry a world inside their heads now, and they want to share its lessons—- its efficacy and efficiency, its stability and rationality—- with the rest of us. How could that be wrong? From their side of the looking glass, it’s not corruption; it’s just common sense.
about the Supreme Court’s troubled term