Samuel Alito and the fishing trip that set the world on fire

How the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision made climate change worse

By Sabrina Haake

Contributing Writer

Published July 20, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Samuel Alito | Supreme Court Building (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Samuel Alito | Supreme Court Building (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As U.S. temperatures set new records during yet another scorching summer, a Union of Concerned Scientists has revealed a list of politicians who protect the fossil fuel industry in exchange for campaign funds, a climate-destroying quid pro quo enabled by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.  

Predicate facts underlying Citizens United were in play when Justice Samuel Alito accepted an expense-paid Alaskan retreat with Paul Singer, a billionaire fossil fuel investor, major GOP donor, and hedge-fund manager with cases before the court. The exclusive fishing junket was arranged by Leonard Leo, a Federalist Society activist who fights climate science and works to put conservative jurists with similar views on the federal bench.  

At first blush, the Alito-Singer trip was covered as just another right-wing justice accepting gifts from conservative donors with interests before the court.  On second look, however, it is apparent that the blossoming rot of dark money is what continues to cripple the U.S. response to climate change, even as forests burn around us and temperatures approach the uninhabitable. 

Alito's misleading defense

Responding to criticism about his trip- and his failure to report it on his financial disclosures- Alito didn't address campaign finance, Leo, or the pernicious effects of Citizens United. Instead, Alito delivered a misleading rebuke wrapped in entitlement. 

On his failure to recuse, Alito claims he was unaware of Singer's interest in at least ten cases before the court, even though Singer's role was heavily covered by the media. Alito explained, "Mr. Singer was not listed as a party… The entities that ProPublica claims are connected to Mr. Singer all appear to be either limited liability corporations or limited liability partnerships." Corporate entities, Alito knows, do not typically list the names of directors, investors, or major shareholders in case captions except in rare cases asserting personal liability.  

Alito also said he's reviewed "hundreds of thousands" of petitions for certiorari review, suggesting there were simply too many cases to track. However, the Supreme Court hears only between 100 to 150 cases each year. In his long 17 years on the court, Alito has heard 2550 cases at most, making his reference to "hundreds of thousands" of certiorari petitions intentionally misleading. He also invoked Supreme Court Rule 29.6 to legitimize his claim that staff- not he- checks for conflicts, and that it is "utterly impossible" for his staff to search filings with the SEC to identify individuals with financial interests before the court.  Rule 29.6 requires disclosure of company interests, not individuals, and his staff didn't go on a personal junket with Singer, Alito did. 

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Even if his misleading explanations on recusal somehow passed the sniff test, Alito recently voted to dismantle EPA climate protections while his wife was under contract to develop fossil fuels on family land.  If his own family's business interests don't present a conflict of interest prompting recusal, his fishing buddy's wouldn't either.

In the ten years following Citizens United, dark money and super PACs spent nearly $3 billion to influence federal races. 

Alito's logic on his failure to report the gifted trip was equally acrobatic. He admitted Singer paid for his $200k flight, but says he didn't need to report it because he merely took a seat that would otherwise have been empty.  "Mr. Singer ...allowed me to occupy what would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat on a private flight to Alaska..." Apparently, to trigger ethical disclosure, Singer needed to fly him solo and perhaps arrange an in-flight foot massage.

The malign influence of Citizens United

Around the same time as the 2008 fishing trip, a not-for-profit called Citizens United released a film to hurt Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.  Because it exceeded limits set by the Federal Election Campaign Act, a judge granted summary judgment to the Election Commission, and the Supreme Court took up the caseAlito then joined a 5-4 majority to change 100 years of election law, striking the Election Act's century-old limit on corporate campaign expenditures and opening the floodgates for special interests and corporations to influence the outcome of national elections.  

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In the ten years following Citizens United, dark money and super PACs spent nearly $3 billion to influence federal races.  From a baseline of $32 million in 2010 (the year Citizens United was decided), billionaire spending on elections rose exponentially to $232 million in 2014, $611 million in 2018, then $881 million in 2022. No SCOTUS decision — not even the overturning of Roe v. Wade — has been more controversial than Citizens United, which allowed Singer to spend hundreds of millions in dark money to support conservative causes.

Singer, Alito attack climate science for a reason

Singer's hedge fund, Elliott Management, provides capital to acquire land for oil and gas production, while Singer supports candidates who deny or downplay the severity of climate change. No industry has benefited more from Citizens United than the energy sector, whose expenditures on federal elections — including a massive decades-long disinformation campaign — nearly quadrupled from 2010 to 2020.  Both Singer and the Federalist Society also spent large sums to ensconce Amy Coney Barrett on the high court, as Barrett confesses "no opinion" about whether climate change even exists.  

Paradoxically, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that politicians most obstructive to climate efforts hail from states most affected by climate change; less paradoxically, these are the same politicians most supported by oil and gas money.  

By allowing deep oil-lined pockets like Singer's to dominate the climate discussion, Citizens United has stymied US climate responses, even as the planet burns.  Alito, who can be flown to Alaska for free, continues to double down on Citizens United; he regularly delivers speeches defending the nefarious outcome, while simultaneously disputing climate science.  The Federalist Society, equally dismissive of climate science and enamored of Citizens United, features a Youtube video on their website explaining how allowing corporations to influence elections is a matter of "free speech."   

The Supreme Court needs to stop the insanity, admit it was wrong, and revert to common sense limits on corporate electioneering. If Democrats retake the House and Senate in 2024, Congress needs to impose term limits and ethical standards on the current court, without delay, and add three justices guided by science rather than money.

Fossil fuel origins of accelerating climate change will likely become indisputable — even in Texas — in about fifty years when our children's children are at the helm, but scientists say that will be too late. When our coastal cities are underwater and Midwestern crops refuse to grow, it will be up to a future Supreme Court to serve justice on fossil-fuel dark money and its entitled beneficiaries like Alito, Singer and Leonard Leo, whose destructive legacy will be sealed.

By Sabrina Haake

Sabrina Haake is a columnist and 25 year federal trial lawyer specializing in First and 14th Amendment defense. Follow her on Substack.

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