DemDaily: Distrust in Justice

June 12, 2024

Americans' trust in the country's highest court, already at a historic low, was further eroded Monday with the breaking news of a tape-recorded conversation between Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and an undercover progressive activist that exposed his radically sectarian worldview.

Justice Samuel Alito is one of six conservative justices on the nine-member US Supreme Court (SCOTUS), three of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump. In June 2022, President Joe Biden historically appointed the court's first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, one of the court's three liberals.

The conversation between Alito and liberal documentarian Lauren Windsor occurred at the non-profit Supreme Court Historical Society's annual gala, held on June 3rd at the Court itself, which provided unusual access to the justices in a social setting.

Windsor is Executive Director of American Family Voices, and Executive Producer and creator of The Undercurrent, a political web show that has done groundbreaking investigative and field reporting for nearly a decade. Windsor's work, including Project Veritas Exposed, has been covered by major news networks and publications, including the New York Times, Politico, CNN and MSNBC.

Posing as a devout Catholic, Windsor -- who paid for her ticket and whose recording was legal -- drew the ultra-conservative Alito into a conversation about religion and the Court. "People in this country who believe in God have got to keep fighting for that, to return our country to a place of godliness," said Windsor, to which Alito responded, "I agree with you, I agree with you."

When Windsor told Alito she believed that polarization in the US was reaching a boiling point, Alito responded, "I think you're probably right, one side or the other is going to win. I mean, there can be a way of working — a way of living together peacefully, but it’s difficult, you know, because there are differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised. It’s not like you can split the difference.”

Alito's comments subtly reflected his holistic view of the ideological war to protect religious freedom. In a highly controversial 2022 speech delivered at a religious liberty summit in Rome, Alito spoke of the battle between the "godly" forces of Christianity and "those who want to hold complete power... that grows out of something dark and deep in the human DNA...Ultimately, if we're going to win the battle in an increasingly secular society, we will need more than positive law,” said Alito.

"It's easy to blame the media, but I do blame them because they do nothing but criticize us. And so they have really eroded trust in the court" - Justice Samuel Alito

Alito was already under public scrutiny following the release of a May 17th New York Times article which featured photos of an inverted American flag flying in front of his Virginia home shortly after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. The inverted flag, originally used to signal distress and since adopted by insurrectionists, has become a sign of Trump's "Stop the Steal" movement.

In response to the public uproar and call by members of Congress for Alito to recuse himself from January 6 cases before the court, the justice claimed he "had no involvement whatsoever" with the flags: his wife Martha-Ann, said Alito, is "solely responsible" for flying both.

Alito told lawmakers in a letter on May 29 that he would not recuse himself from two pending cases involving the 2020 presidential election or January 6, 2021.

Equally, if not more astounding, was the conversation Windsor had with Martha-Ann Alito at the Historical Society event.

Responding to Windsor's expression of sympathy for the attacks against the couple, Martha-Ann said her husband asked her not to put up a flag, to which she said when he was "free of this nonsense I'm putting it up and I am going to send them a message every day" referring to the media.

The controversy surrounding the Alito's comes on the heels of April 2023 revelations, reported by ProPublica, that Justice Clarence Thomas failed to report over twenty years' worth of luxury trips and gifts from Republican megadonor and Dallas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.

In 2022, Thomas refused to recuse himself from cases that involved efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election after it was revealed that his wife, influential conservative activist Ginni Thomas, had been in direct communication with former President Donald Trump to advocate for the QAnon-related conspiracy schemes.

Crow has also been a supporter of Ginni Thomas, contributing half a million dollars in 2011 to a Tea Party group she founded. Other allegations involve Crow's payment of rent and tuition for Thomas' family members.

A June 2-4, 2024 survey conducted by YouGov/The Economist found that 37% of registered voters approved of "the way the Supreme Court is handling its job," compared to 54% who disapproved (MOE: +/- 3%)

In November 2023, the US Supreme Court announced a formal code of conduct for its justices in response to this historical crisis of confidence in the nation's highest chamber. The code, however, lacks any legal accountability.

SCOTUS remains the only court in the federal judiciary that is not accountable for violation of ethics codes. Only impeachment -- which requires a majority vote in the House and two-thirds in the Senate -- can remove a justice.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) described the move as “a long-overdue step by the justices, but a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senate Majority Whip and Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin, has been investigating potential ethics violations by the justices since May 2023, and introduced

the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act (SCERT) , which is still awaiting action by the full Senate.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: ProPublica, Washington Post, New York Times, NBC, Politico, Supreme Court, NPR

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