Justice Samuel Alito is the latest Supreme Court judge to face scrutiny over his acceptance of luxury travel and gifts, raising new questions about the Court’s impartiality and legitimacy.
A ProPublica report published on Tuesday revealed that Alito accepted a trip on a private jet as well as lodging as part of a fishing excursion to Alaska in 2008. That flight was covered by a Republican donor and hedge fund manager named Paul Singer, whose business later had multiple cases before the Supreme Court that Alito did not recuse himself from.
Alito’s decision not to disclose the private jet trip was a likely violation of the Ethics in Government Act, which requires the disclosure of transportation gifts, legal experts told Vox. Additionally, ethics experts say Alito’s decision not to recuse himself from subsequent cases, including a major decision in 2014, could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, undermining trust in the Court’s decisions.
Alito claims those legal and ethics experts are wrong. Though he did not comment directly in the ProPublica story, he did counter both allegations via a Wall Street Journal op-ed he published on Tuesday. In that op-ed, Alito argued that he did not need to disclose the travel gift because it qualified as personal “hospitality,” which he argued is exempted from such rules. He also claimed that he was unaware of the connection Singer had to the business in the 2014 case he weighed in on, which is why he did not recuse himself. Alito said, too, that even if he knew of Singer’s ties, he wouldn’t have had to recuse himself because they did not discuss any business or cases before the court in their interactions.
“Neither charge is valid,” Alito wrote.
Ethics experts note that transportation has not been exempted from disclosures in the law, and say that Alito’s interpretation of such rules is a bit of a stretch. Additionally, some are calling for document reforms, arguing that information about the parties before the Court should be more transparent if Alito was unable to identify Singer’s ties to the business affected in the 2014 case he oversaw.
The Alito report only compounds the attention the court has received in recent months for justices’ mishandling of gift disclosures, including Justice Clarence Thomas’s failure to divulge both travel and real estate sales paid for by Republican donor Harlan Crow. In the wake of these stories, there’s been a growing push for lawmakers in Congress to pass legislation that would require the Court to establish an ethics code and set up an independent body that could evaluate complaints toward justices. Members of the Court, however, have been hostile to this pressure.
“It’s another data point proving that something needs to be done,” says David Janovsky, a policy analyst for the Project on Government Oversight. “It underscores one of the broader points that reform advocates have been making — that this is not about any one justice; this is about a systemic problem.”
Alito’s case renews attention on ethics issues at the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is effectively in charge of regulating itself. Unlike other branches of government and even other segments of the judiciary, the Court does not have an ethics code or an independent body that would hold justices accountable for ethics violations. Instead, justices typically rely on their own judgment to determine whether a case would pose a conflict of interest and what activities require disclosure.
The reports on Alito and Thomas suggest that the body needs more external guardrails, however — as do their respective defenses. Alito and Thomas both responded to the reports by suggesting they weren’t the only justices to accept gifts; as Alito put it in his op-ed, “I followed what I understood to be standard practice.”
Thomas and Alito’s behavior — and perhaps that of other justices — “underlines the importance of why we need legislation that would address these issues like that proposed by Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse and Rep. [Hank] Johnson,” says Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at CREW, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Whitehouse and Johnson’s legislation, which has been dubbed the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act (SCERT), would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct, establish an investigative board that would look into complaints about the justices, and set up stricter policies around recusal.
For now, that legislation is unlikely to pass due to Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, and GOP claims that Democrats want to target justices they’ve appointed. Theoretically, the Supreme Court could also impose many of these changes on its own, though it’s struggled to reach a consensus on an ethics code in recent years.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin attacked this failing in a statement following the Alito article, announcing that the Judiciary Committee would mark up Supreme Court ethics legislation in the coming weeks. “The Supreme Court is in an ethical crisis of its own making,” Durbin said in a statement. “Chief Justice Roberts could resolve this today, but he has not acted.”
Absent additional reforms, the most severe penalty that Alito or Thomas could face for a possible ethics violation is a fine, though the statute of limitations may have run out on some of the allegations that have been reported. Beyond a review and penalty from the Justice Department, a justice could be impeached by Congress if lawmakers believed their conduct warranted it. That outcome is also unlikely due to the political breakdown of the body at the moment. Ethics experts hope, however, that lawmakers consider other policies in order to make sure that the public maintains confidence in the courts.
“It’s very destructive to the public’s trust in one of the most important branches,” Canter says of the ethics violations. “They are willing to jump into decisions about what kind of relationships we have, whether or not we can have children, maybe even whether or not we take contraception. They are intruding into the most private parts of our lives, and at the same time, they want to cover up their trips gallivanting halfway across the country or world.”