Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. took the unusual step late Tuesday by answering questions about his trip with a billionaire who often has cases before the Supreme Court, hours before an article detailing their ties was even published.
In an extraordinary salvo in a preferred forum, Justice Alito defended himself in a preemptive op-ed in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal before the news organization ProPublica published its luxury fishing narrative in 2008.
His response comes as judges face increasing scrutiny over their ethical obligations to report gifts and recuse themselves from cases involving their benefactors. The latest revelations are sure to intensify calls for the court to adopt stricter ethics rules.
Judges have taken different approaches to explain their actions and try to protect their institution. Judge Clarence Thomas has remained largely silent in the face of revelations about gifts from Harlan Crowe, a wealthy Republican donor. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. declined a congressional invitation to testify about the court’s ethics practices and made vague statements about addressing them.
And Justice Alito came out swinging.
The ProPublica article focuses on Justice Alito’s trip to a remote part of Alaska, arriving on the private jet of Paul Singer, an extremely wealthy hedge fund manager and Republican donor. The flight would have cost more than $100,000 one way if Justice had hired him personally, the outlet estimated, and his annual disclosures make no mention of the trip, which many legal ethics experts say is a violation of federal law. In the years since, Mr. Singer’s firms have been parties to a number of Supreme Court cases involving Justice Alito.
ProPublica sought comment from the justice, who instead reached out to The Journal to make two main points: that he is not required to recuse himself from those cases or disclose the trip.
Justice Alito said he had spoken to Mr. Singer only a few times, including on two occasions when Mr. Singer introduced the justice before speeches. “It was and is my judgment that these facts would not cause a reasonable and impartial person to doubt my ability to impartially decide the issues at hand,” Justice Alito wrote.
He added that he was unaware of Mr. Singer’s connection to the cases before the court, including one in which the court ruled 7 to 1 in favor of one of Mr. Singer’s businesses, with Justice Alito in the majority.
But Mr. Singer’s connection to the case, Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, was widely publicized. A Forbes article covering the decision carried the headline “Supreme Court hands billionaire Paul Singer victory over Argentina.” An article in The New York Times notes that the parties to the suit include “NML Capital, an affiliate of Elliott Management, the hedge fund founded by Paul Singer.”
Justice Alito said he was not required to disclose Mr. Singer’s private jet travel to “a place that, to my knowledge, would otherwise be free.”
Federal law requires disclosure of gifts above a certain value, but makes exceptions for “personal hospitality of any person” at “the personal residence of that person or his family or at property or facilities owned by that person or his family.” Justice Alito wrote that a jet was such a facility, citing dictionary definitions.
In March, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts, issued new guidelines requiring disclosure of information about private jet travel and stays at commercial properties such as resorts.
After ProPublica revealed that Judge Thomas had taken a series of lavish vacations paid for by Mr. Crowe, including extended stays on Mr. Crowe’s yacht, the judge said he would comply with the revised rules. Judge Thomas justified accepting the trips because of what he said was his close friendship with Mr Crowe.
In his essay, Justice Alito disputed the notion that the fishing trip was particularly fancy, and told ProPublica about extravagant meals topped with expensive bottles of wine. “I stayed three nights in a modest one-room suite at King Salmon Lodge, which was a comfortable but rustic facility,” he wrote. “As far as I remember, the food was homemade. I can’t remember if the group at the lodge, about 20 people, was served wine, but if there was wine, it certainly wasn’t wine that cost $1,000.
Among those who helped organize the trip, according to ProPublica, was Leonard Leo, a longtime leader of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, who also attended. In a statement to ProPublica, Mr. Leo wrote that judges from across the ideological spectrum have received hospitality from friends and supporters and that their judicial work has not been affected.
“We all have to wonder if this recent series of ProPublica stories questioning the integrity of only conservative Supreme Court justices is a decoy to reel in more dark money from woke billionaires who want to damage this Supreme Court and rebuild into one that will flout the law by reinforcing their untidy and highly unpopular cultural preferences,” Mr. Leo said.
Justice Alito appears to be on good terms with The Journal’s opinion pages, which published a wide-ranging interview with him in April.
At the time, he said he was disappointed that lawyers did not come forward to defend the court, which has faced increasing scrutiny for what critics say are serious ethical lapses.
“This type of concerted attack on the court and individual judges” is, he said, “new in my lifetime.”
He added: “The idea has always been that judges should not respond to criticism, but if the courts are unfairly attacked, the organized bar will come to their defense.”
Instead, Justice Alito said, “if anything, they participated to some degree in these attacks.”
Days before Politico published a leaked draft of Justice Alito’s majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade last year, an editorial in The Journal provided hints of tension on the court that appeared to be based on insider knowledge.
The author of the majority opinion was not yet publicly known. “Our guess,” the editorial correctly said, was that it would be Justice Alito.
Recent revelations have highlighted how few disclosure requirements are in place and how judges are often left to fend for themselves.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an advocacy group pushing for more openness on the Supreme Court, said there is a need for an ethics overhaul. “The public should expect Supreme Court justices of all people to exemplify ethics,” he said, “yet the nine have consistently shown themselves to be deficient in that regard.”
Last month, the chief justice said the court intended to hear the issue, even though he suggested Congress was unable to act under the Constitution’s separation of powers.
“I want to assure people that I am committed to ensuring that we as a court are held to the highest standards of conduct,” he said. “We continue to look for things we can do to give practical effect to this commitment.”