The Supreme Court on Monday issued an unusually forceful and detailed rebuttal to ethics concerns raised by two Democratic lawmakers about a drive by religious conservatives to wine and dine some justices.
The court’s counterpunch came in a letter to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), after the lawmakers threatened a congressional probe if the court did not launch its own inquiry into the claims.
The two-page letter from the Supreme Court’s legal counsel, Ethan Torrey, repeats and expands on earlier denials of impropriety issued by Justice Samuel Alito, following reports in POLITICO, The New York Times and Rolling Stone about a concerted campaign by religious-right activists to encourage more conservative decisions by the justices by building connections with them in social settings.
The Times and POLITICO also reported that one organizer of that effort, the Rev. Rob Schenck, claimed he was alerted in 2014 to the looming conservative victory in the Hobby Lobby case about contraception coverage under Obamacare. Schenck contends that early word of the decision, authored by Alito, came after an Ohio woman, Gail Wright, and her husband dined with Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann, at their home a few weeks before the decision was publicly released. Gail Wright has denied receiving or conveying such a heads-up.
“Justice Alito has said that neither he nor Mrs. Alito told the Wrights about the outcome of the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, or about the authorship of the opinion of the Court,” Torrey wrote. The letter goes on to call that allegation “uncorroborated,” citing POLITICO’s report that months of research into the claim failed to locate anyone who said he or she heard directly from Alito or his wife about the decision in advance and the Times’ description of “gaps” in Schenck’s account.
Torrey also flatly rejected the notion that the Alitos’ social interactions ran afoul of any court rules, policies or practices.
“There is nothing to suggest that Justice Alito’s actions violated ethics standards,” Torrey wrote. “Relevant rules balance preventing gifts that might undermine public confidence in the judiciary and allowing judges to maintain normal personal friendships.”
The court’s more detailed response came after Whitehouse and Johnson blasted a letter the court sent to them earlier this month, offering a series of generalities about court practices but not directly responding to their specific concerns about the lobbying effort by religious conservatives. Spokespeople for the lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Torrey’s letter was released by a court spokesperson, citing earlier press queries about the matter.
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