Gorsuch, Sotomayor deny beef over masks on the bench

·2 min read
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The U.S. Supreme Court sought to defuse speculation of tensions between two of its sitting justices Wednesday following a recent NPR report that chronicled divisions over Covid protocols within the nation’s highest court.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor, in an unusual joint statement released Wednesday, insisted that Sotomayor had not asked Gorsuch to wear a mask during court proceedings. But the statement diverged on key details from the NPR report and denied events that don’t actually appear in the report that the justices seemed to be rebutting.

The justices' statement was followed later in the day by one from Chief Justice John Roberts that more directly disputed the reporting — another rare move on the part of the court.

The NPR story published Tuesday noted that Sotomayor, who has diabetes, has been participating in recent hearings remotely from her office due to concerns over her heightened risk of serious illness from Covid-19. Citing unnamed “court sources,” NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reported that Roberts sought to allay Sotomayor’s concerns by asking "in some form" that justices wear masks, a request that was reportedly agreed to by all of the other justices except for Gorsuch, whose chair is next to Sotomayor’s on the bench.

Totenberg's reporting, which has not been confirmed by POLITICO, does not allege a direct ask of Gorsuch by Sotomayor that he wear a mask. And the justices' statement makes no reference to any masking request by Roberts.

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

Hours later, Roberts issued a denial of his own.

"I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench," the chief justice said in a statement.

The Sotomayor-Gorsuch dynamic was just one of several components of the NPR report, which also detailed frustrations among the court’s liberals with their conservative colleagues, as well as jockeying among several of those conservative justices to take up the intellectual legal mantle left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

A spokesperson for NPR said the outlet stood behind its reporting.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.