Supreme Court justices push back on report of Covid mask rift

Supreme Court justices push back on report of Covid mask rift

Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 30, 2018.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch on Wednesday denied their relationship has been frayed over a disagreement about wearing masks as a Covid-19 safety measure during in-person court proceedings.

The rare joint statement from the two sitting justices came one day after an NPR report said Gorsuch refused to wear a mask despite a request “in some form” from Chief Justice John Roberts for all nine members of the bench to do so.

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

That statement did not address the key question of whether Roberts had asked the justices to wear masks. It denied that Sotomayor herself had asked Gorsuch to wear a mask, which is not what NPR reported.

With questions mounting, the court released an additional statement from Roberts later Wednesday, in which the chief justice said he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench.”

Before Roberts’ statement was released, an NPR spokesman told CNBC that the outlet stands by its story.

Its author, veteran Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, “never reported that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask, nor did she report that anyone admonished him,” NPR’s spokesman said. “The statement released by Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch does not contradict the reporting in Totenberg’s piece.”

Asked for comment on Roberts’ statement later Wednesday, the spokesman said, “NPR stands behind Nina Totenberg’s reporting.”

Totenberg reported that Gorsuch’s refusal to wear a mask during oral arguments, and during the justices’ weekly conferences as well, led Sotomayor to participate in those events remotely.

Roberts “in some form” had asked the other justices to wear masks after Sotomayor — who has diabetes and is therefore at a higher risk of serious illness from Covid — felt unsafe sitting next to unmasked people amid the surge of the highly transmissible omicron variant, NPR reported.

All nine justices are vaccinated against Covid and all have received booster shots.

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