US Supreme Court counsel defends conservative justice after allegations of outside influence in 2014 contraceptive decision News
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US Supreme Court counsel defends conservative justice after allegations of outside influence in 2014 contraceptive decision

Legal counsel for the US Supreme Court Monday defended Justice Samuel Alito and his wife from allegations of outside influence raised by members of Congress. In a November 20 letter, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative Henry Johnson (D-GA) questioned whether Alito was in any way influenced by or gave advance notice to a right-wing organization regarding a 2014 ruling in a case concerning contraceptives. Whitehouse and Johnson sent the letter after a New York Times report revealed the right-wing organization, Faith and Action, sought to influence Alito and gain advance knowledge of the court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

US Supreme Court legal counsel Ethan Torrey stated, “There is nothing to suggest that Justice Alito’s actions violated ethics standards.” Instead, Torrey said, Alito and his wife maintained a “purely social” relationship with members of the right-wing organization. Torrey also pointed to holes in the New York Times’ reporting, including the fact that the news organization itself stated there were gaps in the information it relied upon in the initial report.

Faith and Action orchestrated “Operation Higher Court” in 2014 to influence conservative justices in the Burwell case. Roughly 20 couples were involved in the operation, including the Wrights. POLITICO reported that all of the couples who participated in the operation “‘knew they were being coached’ and adhered to a ‘casual reporting procedure’ in which they offered feedback on” dinners they had with conservative justices and their wives. Financial documents revealed that the Wrights even went as far as to host justices for speaking engagements, like Scalia in June 2006, September 2008 and October 2012. However, POLITICO was unable to find anyone to corroborate the New York Times story, and reporters concluded that no one heard about the Burwell decision “directly from either Alito or his wife before its release at the end of June 2014.”

In their initial letter, Whitehouse and Johnson described the reports concerning “Operation Higher Court” as “another black mark on the Supreme Court’s increasingly marred ethical record.” The letter urged the court to adopt mandatory ethics rules in line with other branches of the government, which go beyond the court’s current ethics rules. Whitehouse and Johnson specifically encouraged the court to adopt their Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which would mandate stricter rules regarding gift disclosures, travel paid for by an outside party, disclosure of the identity of funders of amicus briefs and any gifts they may provide to the justices.

In response to Torrey’s letter, Whitehouse and Johnson stated, “The Court’s letter is an embodiment of the problems at the Court around ethics issues.” Both Whitehouse and Johnson claimed the letter ignored questions posed by their November 20 letter. They also claims that Torrey overlooked “important facts like all the contemporaneous evidence that [Faith and Action] in fact knew both the outcome and author [of the Burwell decision] in advance and acted…on that knowledge.”