Senator Whitehouse Lodges Ethics Complaint Against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, on Tuesday wrote a letter Chief Justice John Roberts to lodge an ethics complaint against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito for violating several canons of judicial ethics.

Whitehouse’s formal complaint follows revelations that Justice Alito accepted but did not disclose gifts of luxury travel and exclusive lodging from right-wing billionaires, one with business before the Court. Justice Alito then made public comments opining on the constitutionality of Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency legislation to reform the Court’s lax ethics regime, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Justice Alito’s comments also implicated ongoing Senate investigations into Justice Alito’s undisclosed gifts.

“In the worst case facts may reveal, Justice Alito was involved in an organized campaign to block congressional action with regard to a matter in which he has a personal stake. Whether Justice Alito was unwittingly used to provide fodder for such interference, or intentionally participated, is a question whose answer requires additional facts,” wrote Senator Whitehouse to Chief Justice Roberts.

“As you have repeatedly emphasized, the Supreme Court should not be helpless when it comes to policing its own members’ ethical obligations. But it is necessarily helpless if there is no process of fair fact-finding, nor independent decision-making,” continued Whitehouse.

“I request that you as Chief Justice, or through the Judicial Conference, take whatever steps are necessary to investigate this affair and provide the public with prompt and trustworthy answers,” concluded Whitehouse.

Whitehouse’s ethics complaint lays out five ways in which Justice Alito appears to have violated the canons of judicial ethics and the Supreme Court’s Statement of Ethics Principles and Practice, to which all sitting justices claimed to subscribe:

  1. Improper Opining on a Legal Issue that May Come Before the Court;
  2. Improper Intrusion into a Specific Matter;
  3. Improper Intrusion into a Specific Matter at the Behest of Counsel in that Matter;
  4. Improper Intrusion into a Specific Matter Involving an Undisclosed Personal Relationship; and
  5. Improper Use of Judicial Office for Personal Benefit.

Reporting from ProPublica in June found that Justice Alito accepted private jet travel to an all-expenses-paid Alaskan fishing vacation from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. Singer, who has contributed over $80 million to Republican political organizations, subsequently had business before the Court. Alito’s luxury vacation was organized by Leonard Leo, the engineer for a cadre of right-wing billionaires of the current right-wing Supreme Court supermajority. Alito’s lodging on the vacation was provided by the billionaire Robin Arkley II, who funded the launch of Leo’s primary advocacy group in the Court-capture effort, the “Judicial Crisis Network.” Alito did not disclose these gifts on his annual financial disclosure report, as required by federal law.

Justice Alito preemptively responded to ProPublica’s reporting in an unusual, defensive op-ed in the Wall Street Journal before ProPublica published its findings. In the op-ed, Alito argued that a private jet should be considered a “facility” and that a seat on a private plane that would otherwise be empty is fair to accept without reporting on financial disclosure filings.

Whitehouse and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) wrote to Leo, Singer, and Arkley in July seeking to identify the full extent of payments or gifts of travel and lodging given to Supreme Court justices. Leo, through his lawyer David Rivkin, rejected the Committee’s request for information, arguing that “the inquiry exceeds the limits placed by the Constitution on the Committee’s investigative authority.”

Days after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, Justice Alito, in a bizarre interview with Leonard Leo’s lawyer David Rivkin, stated: “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it. No provision in the Constitution gives [Congress] the authority to regulate the Supreme Court—period.” Justice Alito’s comments to Rivkin track closely to what Rivkin argued to the Committee on Leo’s behalf.

Judiciary Committee Democrats wrote a letter the following week asking the Chief Justice to take appropriate steps to ensure that Justice Alito will recuse himself in any future cases concerning legislation that regulates the Court.

Whitehouse lodged today’s formal complaint as the author of the legislation at issue, and as the only Senator serving in the majority on both the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees which are investigating ethical mishaps by Supreme Court justices. Whitehouse lodged the complaint as a letter to the Chief Justice because, unlike every other federal court, the Supreme Court has no formal process for receiving or investigating such complaints. Whitehouse urged that this complaint be used to forge a proper complaint procedure meeting the due process fundamentals of fair fact-finding and independent decision-making.

Full text of the ethics complaint can be found here.



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