The typically genial Supreme Court got a dose of controversy this week when NPR reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was forced to participate in hearings via teleconference because Justice Neil Gorsuch — who sits next to her on the bench — refused to wear a mask.
The court had been holding in-person hearings for months, with Sotomayor during that time remaining the only justice who chose to wear a mask. She has diabetes, a risk factor that puts her at greater risk for serious illness or death should she contract COVID-19.
But amid skyrocketing cases of the new omicron variant this month, Chief Justice John Roberts apparently asked for all of his colleagues to mask up, according to NPR. It was a request all were happy to oblige, given Sotomayor's condition — except for Gorsuch.
In fact, he apparently also refused to wear a mask for the court's weekly conference, a meeting that Sotomayor also decided to attend remotely.
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But both justices were quick to tamp down on the rumors Wednesday, issuing a rare joint statement denying any tensions — or even that any kind of conversation had taken place about Gorsuch's decision not to wear a mask.
"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false," Sotomayor and Gorsuch said in the joint statement shared by the court on Wednesday — despite the fact that NPR had reported it was Roberts who had asked Gorsuch to wear the mask, not Sotomayor.
NPR released a statement in response stating that it "stands behind Nina Totenberg's reporting."
"Totenberg never reported that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask, nor did she report that anyone admonished him," NPR spokesman Ben Fishel said.
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Roberts later released a separate statement to The Hill, claiming that he had not asked Gorsuch to mask up either — or any other justice for that matter.
"I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench," the Roberts said in a statement provided to The Hill. NPR did not respond to a request for comment from the outlet.
In the wake of the controversy, insider reports quickly emerged in CNN and elsewhere that Sotomayor had "expressed concerns" to Roberts but that nobody had directly asked Gorsuch to wear a mask, further muddying the waters over what exactly had taken place.
It's a drama that underlies the Supreme Court's increasing political polarization and the rising levels of personal strife that have overtaken the chamber in recent months, as the court's conservative supermajority appears ready to take a sledgehammer to longstanding precedents like Roe vs. Wade.
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Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime Supreme Court correspondent, cites several moments of palpable anger from the court's liberal justices that have boiled over recently, including eye rolls, speeches from the bench and even an anecdote about the color draining from Justice Elena Kagan's face as one of the conservative justices speaks.
While all of this is happening, the court's more senior members — on both sides — have tried to keep tensions at a minimum, citing reduced public trust due to recent accusations of partisanship. It's not clear these efforts have, thus far, been working.
"The people at the court, in my time at least, think that the Constitution, the country ... the court is much more important than they are and they somehow keep it together to decide cases appropriately and to get along with each other in a civil way," Justice Clarence Thomas said during a commencement address at Duquesne University, according to NPR.