Jun 22, 2023
Supreme Court Justice Alito Faces Scrutiny Over Undisclosed Luxury Trip From GOP Donor Transcript
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took an undisclosed trip with billionaire donors, including hedge fund manager Paul Singer who later had business before the court. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:00):
In 2008, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took an undisclosed fishing trip to Alaska with billionaire donors, including hedge fund manager Paul Singer, who later had business before the court. Coupled with previous reporting on the relationship of Justice Clarence Thomas and Republican mega donor Harlan Crow, it raises serious ethical questions regarding the high court. Josh Kaplan is one of the ProPublica reporters who broke the story and he joins me now. Josh, welcome back. At the heart of your story, is this July 2008 trip that Alito took to Alaska traveling there on a private plane paid for by that billionaire, Paul Singer. His stay at the lodge also paid for by another major donor on the trip. Neither of those things was disclosed. Tell us a little bit about what your reporting revealed about that trip and why people think it should have been disclosed.
Josh Kaplan (00:52):
Singer was not just another guest on the trip. He provided Alito with a private jet to fly him across the country to Alaska. If Alito had chartered that plane himself, it could have cost easily more than a hundred thousand dollars, we were told. Alito didn’t disclose any of this, it’s been secret until now, and experts told us that he appears to have violated a government ethics law passed after Watergate that requires justices to disclose most gifts to the public.
Speaker 1 (01:27):
That man, that billionaire, Paul Singer, his hedge fund later had a case before the Supreme Court, a case that the [inaudible 00:01:35], as you reported previously declined to take up. Why did the experts you talked to say that in this case Alito should have recused himself from that case?
Josh Kaplan (01:44):
Alito didn’t recuse himself in any of the more than at least 10 cases that Paul Singer had after the trip. Experts said that they’d never heard of another example of a Supreme Court justice sitting on a case after receiving an expensive gift from one of the parties. There is a law that governs when justices must recuse themselves from the case, and it sets a very high standard, but a subjective standard. It’s that if there’s the appearance of impropriety, a justice must recuse. But when it comes to the Supreme Court, the only person that interprets that standard, the sole arbiter of when a justice should recuse from a case, is the justice him or herself.
Speaker 1 (02:31):
Alito has responded in the form of an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. In brief, he basically says he doesn’t believe his relationship with Paul Singer warranted recusal. He doesn’t think that the hospitality provided needed to be reportable. He claims in his words, “ProPublica misleads its readers.” He writes, “It was and is my judgment that these facts would not cause a reasonable and unbiased person to doubt my ability to decide the matters in question impartially.” Josh, this is one of the central questions, right on impartiality. Do we know if his relationship with Singer or this trip or anything else had any impact on his decisions?
Josh Kaplan (03:09):
We don’t know if they had any impact. In terms of a quid pro quo that a case went one way or another because of this trip, there’s no evidence of that. I should say that when Justice Alito wrote this op-ed saying the article was misleading, the article hadn’t come out yet and he hadn’t read it. But in terms of recusal, one expert put it to us as it’s fairly simple. If you were on the other side of a case in any court in this country and you learned that the person that you were fighting against had given an expensive gift, taken the judge sitting on the case on vacation, you would have questions about that judge’s ability to sit. They said that that means that Alito clearly should recuse in this case.
Speaker 1 (04:04):
We asked Kathleen Clark, who’s a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, who focuses on government ethics, about this report, about your last report, about Justice Clarence Thomas and the gifts he had received. Here’s what she had to say.
Kathleen Clark (04:18):
It is a systemic problem. It’s a problem for the entire institution. These weaknesses are not about one or two bad justices. The court has failed to adopt and apply ethics standards. Until it does or until Congress imposes those standards, we will continue to have stories about unethical Supreme Court justices.
Speaker 1 (04:48):
Josh, what does all of your reporting say to you about the court’s ability to police themselves on these issues?
Josh Kaplan (04:55):
Well, I think one of the root issues in all of this is the lack of transparency and oversight on the high court that really is a stark contrast to the other branches of government. If you work in the executive branch, there is an ethics office. The clearest things for you, that analyzes these problems when they come up, there are rules on what gifts you can accept. There are extremely strict rules on what gifts you must disclose. The justices are more or less left police themselves. They always have been. When Alito went on this vacation and accepted this private jet ride that could have cost a hundred thousand dollars to charter from a person he didn’t know, who had just had a case before the court, that was completely within the court’s rules. He had to disclose it and experts say he violated the law by not disclosing it, but there was no restrictions on this. Then, if a conflict comes up or a potential conflict comes up, the only person who decides if a justice should recuse is the justice, and that’s a decision that can’t be appealed.
Speaker 1 (06:02):
That is Josh Kaplan of ProPublica joining us tonight with his latest report. Josh, thanks for making the time.
Josh Kaplan (06:09):
Thanks for having me.