On Tuesday afternoon, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was gifted op-ed space in The Wall Street Journal, in which he attempted to make a preemptive strike on a ProPublica article reporting on evidence of his accepting gifts from someone with business before the court. Even though the ProPublica article had not appeared at the time the op-ed ran, Alito was shockingly accurate about what it would say.
But then, it’s always easy to predict the evidence of guilt when you’re the one who is guilty. In fact, it’s easy to read Alito’s op-ed for what it really is: a confession.
Alito took a huge gift from someone who has had business before the court not once, but at least 10 times. And all Alito can provide as justification is that he really didn’t remember a once-in-a-lifetime trip with a six-figure price tag, and didn’t manage to put together that the hedge fund he was ruling on was connected to the person who gave him that trip. Who was a hedge fund manager.
In other words, ignorance is his only excuse. According to Alito, that’s just fine.
What the ProPublica article shows is that Alito took a very expensive fishing trip in 2008. That included being flown to a remote location in Alaska on a private jet, and being put up in a room at an exclusive lodge where he was wined, dined, and guided to catch some very large king salmon. His flight, his fishing, his meals, wine, and room were covered by hedge fund manager Paul Singer.
Alito never reported this gift. Because, he says, he only had a “modest room” and “if there was wine it was certainly not wine that costs $1,000.” Which skips right past the fact that the room, no matter if it wasn’t up to Alito’s high standards, cost $1,000 a night all on its own—enough that a single night there should have made the trip subject to reporting.
When it comes to his flight on a private jet, Alito has a Very Good Reason why he didn’t have to report that.
As for the flight, 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. It was my understanding that this would not impose any extra cost on Mr. Singer. Had I taken commercial flights, that would have imposed a substantial cost and inconvenience on the deputy U.S. Marshals who would have been required for security reasons to assist me.
There’s the minor problem that every seat on a scheduled flight, private or commercial, would be “have otherwise been vacant” if someone didn’t put their butt in it. That doesn’t make the value of these seats in any sense free. He might want to try walking up to the gate at any airline and telling them he wants to use one of those empty seats, just to check.
When it comes to the U.S. Marshals service, deputy marshals do generally provide protection for federal judges, but Alito seems to be saying that he would need their protection if flying with the general public, but not in the company of these wealthy men who he had never met before. It’s almost as if he’s saying that because they were rich, they were treated differently.
Singer’s hedge fund was party to at least 10 cases before the Supreme Court. These aren’t complex relationships, in which Singer contributed to an organization, or was a partial owner of some entity through a nest of overlapping corporations. Singer was a hedge fund manager. That hedge fund was party to a case. But Alito has a firm response to why he couldn’t possibly draw the connection.
It would be utterly impossible for my staff or any other Supreme Court employees to search filings with the SEC or other government bodies to find the names of all individuals with a financial interest in every such entity named as a party in the thousands of cases that are brought to us each year.
It would be utterly impossible … Except that the case was in 2014 and even if Alito’s memory of Singer’s fund was faulty, it was an answer that could have been returned in three seconds by any search engine. This is a Supreme Court justice asking to be forgiven for failing to do the level of research that would be required of a high school freshman turning in a history paper. And, as might be obvious, ProPublica had no trouble making this “impossible” connection.
In “Chinatown,” corruption is a complex web of connections tying city officials to a wealthy land developer who is using a manufactured drought to buy up land cheaply. In “The Godfather,” it’s cops being paid under the table by both sides in a competing mob war. In many films and television shows, corruption happens in the shadows, with the exchange of a briefcase filled with cash, or the promise of a little somethin’ somethin’ directed to an offshore account.
As is being vividly demonstrated here, that’s not what real corruption looks like at all. What real corruption looks like is a billionaire “friend” buying up your childhood home at far above the market value, fixing it up, and letting your mom live there gratis. It looks like expensive private school tuition for a family member being paid by a pal. It looks like millions of dollars in business being directed to your wife’s business—the business that was “accidentally” left off income disclosure forms for 20 years.
And maybe more than anything else, it looks like trips, gifts, and experiences that would be utterly unavailable to the average person—and whose acceptance would be absolutely forbidden to any federal employee who was not a Supreme Court justice. The reason articles keep appearing about this kind of trip being enjoyed by justices and not other officials, or judges at other levels of the courts, is because the Supreme Court has written themselves an out. They are not just the judges of everyone else, they’re also the only judges over their own behavior.
Who watches the watchmen? Why, the watchmen, of course. What could go wrong?
The excuses in the cases of both Thomas and Alito keep coming back to the same things. Either it was acceptable to take a gift because someone was “a good friend” or it was acceptable to rule on a case related to that person because there was no relationship. As one law professor put it in that ProPublic article:
“If you were good friends, what were you doing ruling on his case? And if you weren’t good friends, what were you doing accepting this?”
Alito wants to have it both ways. He’s saying that Singer was a nonentity to him, someone with whom he barely shared a few words. But that didn’t stop him from accepting a flight on the man’s private jet, a stay at that exclusive lodge, and a fishing trip that would make most anglers drool with envy.
Maybe Alito and Singer didn’t talk much. But accepting that trip is an enormous statement. It tells us who Alito is. It tells us who he values.
Alito uses his op-ed to deliver a hashwork of snippets from the court’s own self-generated codes, defending his actions with deflections and deceptive statements that try to make it seem as if the whole trip was a gift from the lodge, and not the man who paid for his “free” jet travel and everything else. But in a way, it almost doesn’t matter who paid.
Ordinary people do not get big free vacations—at least, not unless it’s part of a scam to sell them a timeshare. They don’t get these trips from companies. They don’t get these trips from admirers, They don’t get these trips from “friends.” They don’t get these trips at all.
If you can’t afford to take a trip, why are you taking it from someone else? They may not be selling a timeshare, but they’re certainly selling something, and if you sit down in that private jet, you have signed the contract.
If Alito is looking for a little tip, it’s actually quite simple to tell if an act is corrupt. Just ask, “If I was not a judge, member of Congress, or other public official, would I be getting this gift?" If the answer is no, then accepting it is corrupt.
And that includes being gifted op-ed space in The Wall Street Journal.
We are joined by Christina Reynolds of Emily’s List. Reynolds is the Senior Vice President of Communications and Content at the progressive organization that works on getting women elected to office. Reynolds talks about what she is seeing up and down the ballot this election cycle on the anniversary of the outrageous Supreme Court Decision to take away the reproductive protections of Roe v. Wade.