June 21, 2023

Whitehouse Statement on Explosive ProPublica Report on Justice Alito’s Free Alaskan Fishing Trip Planned by Leonard Leo and Paid for by Billionaires

Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, today released the following statement after another bombshell report published by ProPublica exposed that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito accepted a free Alaskan fishing vacation and private jet travel from a right-wing billionaire with business before the Court.  ProPublica also reported that Leonard Leo, the orchestrator of right-wing influence campaigns around the Supreme Court, attended and helped organize the trip.

“Yet again, the Court-capture operative Leonard Leo appears in the wings as the key to right-wing billionaire influence at the Supreme Court, this time hooking up another Supreme Court justice with billionaire freebie vacations.  Leo doesn’t just have business before the Court – his business is the Court – and any ‘reasonable and unbiased person’ understands that Leo’s side hustle as a luxury travel agent for the far-right Court supermajority reeks of corruption.  

“Justice Alito’s response to this latest reporting shows exactly why this Supreme Court urgently needs an ethics overhaul to hold the justices accountable for the many instances of ethical wrongdoings that continue to come to light.  I’m pleased that Chairman Durbin has announced plans to take up Supreme Court ethics legislation in the Judiciary Committee so we can clean up this mess and bring the Court into alignment with the rest of the federal courts and other branches of government.  If the Supreme Court isn’t going to do anything to restore the public’s trust, then it’s up to us in Congress to ensure that our nation’s highest Court does not have the lowest ethical standards.” 

New reporting from ProPublica found that Justice Alito accepted private jet travel to an all-expenses-paid Alaskan fishing vacation from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer.  Singer, who contributed 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 of the current right-wing Supreme Court supermajority, and Alito’s lodging was provided by the billionaire Robin Arkley II, who funded the launch of Leo’s primary advocacy group, the Judicial Crisis Network.  Justice Alito preemptively responded to ProPublica’s reporting in an unusual, defensive op-ed the Wall Street Journal last night.  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.

In April, bombshell reporting by ProPublica exposed that Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife accepted extravagant vacations worth as much as $500,000 on the dime of Republican megadonor Harlan Crow and did not disclose the travel.  That report was later followed by an additional ProPublica story detailing Crow’s purchase of a string of properties from Justice Thomas and his family members, which was not properly disclosed.  Further reporting by ProPublica indicates that Crow paid for multiple years of tuition for Justice Thomas’s grandnephew to attend private boarding schools.  Further reporting from the Washington Post revealed that in 2012, Leonard Leo directed payments of at least $25,000 to a consulting firm run by Ginni Thomas and asked that her name be left off the paperwork.

Whitehouse has long been the Senate’s leading voice for improving transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court.  In February, Whitehouse reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act, legislation would help restore the American public’s sinking trust in the Supreme Court by fortifying regulations regarding judicial conflicts of interest and recusal.  The bill was endorsed by The New York Times editorial board in April.

The Senator’s bill would end the practice of Supreme Court justices judging their own conflicts of interest, require better disclosure and transparency so the public knows when a justice has a connection to a party or amicus before the Court, and require judges to explain their recusal decisions to the public.  Whitehouse’s Courts Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill last week, exploring how Whitehouse’s SCERT Act would help expose conflicts of interest and enforce recusal laws.

In May, the Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform.  The hearing was co-led by Whitehouse and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), and emphasized the clear need for reform and examined common sense proposals to hold Justices to – at minimum – the same ethical standards as every other federal judge or high-ranking official in the federal government.  Whitehouse’s Courts Subcommittee held a hearing later last month examining the Judicial Conference’s handling of previous ethics complaints against Justice Thomas dating back to 2011.

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921