Supreme Court: NPR Is Fake News

Justices deny feuding over masks

Supreme Court justices chat while taking a group photo in 2021 / Getty Images
January 19, 2022

Three members of the Supreme Court on Wednesday refuted reports that they clashed over masking on the bench, in a rare set of statements directly from the justices.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has holed up in her chambers during oral arguments this month, participating remotely while the rest of her colleagues sit on the bench. Justice Neil Gorsuch has not worn a mask during oral arguments, while the other justices mostly have. NPR reported on Tuesday that Gorsuch refused a request from Chief Justice John Roberts to mask up on Sotomayor's behalf.

"I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench," Roberts said in a Wednesday statement. Earlier in the day, Sotomayor and Gorsuch put out a joint statement that pushed back on the story.

The statements are a good indication that the justices took exception to NPR's article or felt the need to respond. Members of the Court rarely put out statements in their own name, instead preferring to speak as a body through the Court's public information office.

Sotomayor and Gorsuch's statement generally denied any bad feeling between them. The NPR report said that Sotomayor feels unsafe around the unmasked.

"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us," the statement read. "It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends."

NPR never said that Sotomayor made a personal appeal to Gorsuch—only that the chief justice did—but the statement is meant to cool reports of animosity between the pair, who periodically work together to promote civic education.

The publicly funded radio network acknowledged the statements hours after they were issued but stood by the original report.

The justices sit on the bench in order of seniority, so Sotomayor and Gorsuch sit next to one another. Sotomayor sat on the bench during oral arguments throughout the fall and was the only justice wearing a mask, but her thinking apparently changed in the new year, likely in response to the Omicron variant.

Word of a personal feud between two members of the Court in differing ideological camps was a spicy bit of color amid a highly divisive term. The justices in December heard a direct attack on Roe v. Wade, at which time the right-leaning majority indicated it might scuttle abortion precedents altogether this summer.

Signs of internal disarray were also evident in early January, when the Court heard a challenge to the Biden administration's vaccine mandates. The Court's liberal trio made unusually heated statements by the Court's decorous standards. Justice Stephen Breyer told the plaintiffs he found their requests "unbelievable," while Sotomayor hyped false claims about COVID transmission among children.

The courthouse devolved at the start of the pandemic from a busy public building to a carefully controlled environment. The building has been closed to the public since 2020. Lawyers who argue before the Court must present a negative PCR test on the morning before their argument. They are required to wear a mask at all times, except when arguing their case. The Court provides N95 and KN95 masks for attorneys.

Access to the courtroom is limited to essential personnel, lawyers who present arguments, and select members of the press. All nine justices are vaccinated and boosted.

Update 5:28 p.m.: This piece has been updated.