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Alito struggles to explain away difficult new ethics questions

Facing difficult ethics questions, Justice Samuel Alito tried to present a defense. The fact that it fell far short is emblematic of his larger problems.


For much of the spring, the biggest story out of the U.S. Supreme Court had nothing to do with a case and everything to do with ethics: Justice Clarence Thomas’ unusual and previously undisclosed ties to a Republican megadonor raised questions that even his most sycophantic allies struggled to answer.

This morning, the far-right jurist got a little company from his closest ideological ally.

ProPublica, which has taken the lead on exposing Thomas’ alleged ethical lapses, published a new report, this time focused on Justice Samuel Alito.

In early July 2008, Samuel Alito stood on a riverbank in a remote corner of Alaska. The Supreme Court justice was on vacation at a luxury fishing lodge that charged more than $1,000 a day, and after catching a king salmon nearly the size of his leg, Alito posed for a picture. To his left, a man stood beaming: Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who has repeatedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in his favor in high-stakes business disputes. Singer was more than a fellow angler. He flew Alito to Alaska on a private jet. If the justice chartered the plane himself, the cost could have exceeded $100,000 one way.

The ProPublica report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, went on to explain that Singer’s hedge fund had business before the high court “at least 10 times” in the years that followed.

Alito did not disclose the benefits he received from Singer — despite laws suggesting he should have — and he did not recuse himself from cases related to Singer’s business.

“Experts said they could not identify an instance of a justice ruling on a case after receiving an expensive gift paid for by one of the parties,” the article added.

Naturally, ProPublica reached out to Alito for comment before publishing its report. The justice could’ve responded to the questions, but he instead wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page — which has a curious relationship with the conservative — attacking the article before it was published.

The justice’s 1,193-word defense, while underwhelming on a variety of key points, is worth reading in its entirety, though I’d draw your attention to one especially notable assertion: “Mr. Singer and others had already made arrangements to fly to Alaska when I was invited shortly before the event, and I was asked whether I would like to fly there in a seat that, as far as I am aware, would have otherwise been vacant.” The piece actually emphasized this twice, adding that the seat on the private jet “would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat” had he not taken it.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes joked soon after, “I love the notion that the seat on the private jet would have been empty so it doesn’t count. That’s how you know you’re dealing with a straight-shooter with good judgment.”

Complicating matters, Alito’s challenges are made more difficult by the fact that he has no reservoir of credibility to draw upon. We are, after all, talking about a sitting justice who has earned a reputation as the high court’s most unyielding ideologue, who has delivered a series of overtly political speeches, who recently issued a public endorsement of a conservative advocacy group’s work, and who thought it’d be a good idea last fall to defend the Supreme Court’s integrity at a pro-Trump organization, exactly two weeks before the midterm elections.

As for the bigger picture, a variety of senators, mostly Democrats, have spent months arguing for new Supreme Court ethics laws. It’s a safe bet those calls are about to get a whole lot louder.