Hours after he nearly shattered a glass elephant by tossing a “talking stick” at Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) during bipartisan spending talks on Monday (yes, that actually happened), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) decided to buff up his image further by hastily tweeting that he was having dinner with a Supreme Court justice to discuss “important issues.”
“I enjoyed having dinner tonight at the home of Senator John Cornyn and his wife Sandy with our newest Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, Transportation Secretary Chao and a few of my other Senate colleagues to talk about important issues facing our country,” the senior senator wrote.
I enjoyed having dinner tonight at the home of Senator John Cornyn and his wife Sandy with our newest Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, Transportation Secretary Chao and a few of my other Senate colleagues to talk about important issues facing our country.
— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) January 23, 2018
Alexander’s tweet prompted a flurry of angry responses, with many concerned the event was a breach of ethics, or at best bad optics. “Is this type of dinner normal — legislators and Supreme Court justice[s]?” one Twitter user replied.
CNN analyst and former South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers (D) was more blunt with his criticism. “Justice Gorsuch is proving to be a cancer on our Judiciary,” he tweeted.
Objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with a member of Congress (or the executive branch) dining or hunting or hobnobbing with a Supreme Court justice. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, frequently went on hunting trips with his longtime friend, Vice President Dick Cheney, and famously came under fire for a particular duck-hunting trip they took three weeks after the Court agreed to hear an appeal in a case involving Cheney himself. (Scalia defended himself at the time by quacking.)
What’s troubling about Alexander’s dinner with Gorsuch, rather, is the fact that the two met to discuss unspecified “important issues facing our country” — something which Supreme Court justices are rightfully discouraged from doing, as it gives an obvious appearance of partiality and may flout certain ethics rules.
On its own, the dinner meeting might not merit more than a passing glance. The majority of judges and justices slip up occasionally, and even the most dedicated members of the Supreme Court sometimes say or do things that require damage control. (Just ask Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) But Gorsuch has a backlog full of questionable behavior that makes his decision to hold partisan discussions with a member of Congress concerning.
The newest justice, appointed by President Trump, has long been scrutinized for his history of siding with religious liberty advocates, famously ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby in the landmark Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius case, while serving on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He has also been criticized for having an anti-LGBTQ bias, one which bled into a recent dissent he wrote in a case involving two same-sex parents who sought to have both their names listed on their child’s birth certificate. However it’s his decision to blur the line between his life on the bench and his private activities that has many ethics groups troubled.
In September, Gorsuch was criticized by watchdog groups for delivering a speech to a conservative group at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. His remarks were far from the center of the controversy; many justices have chosen to speak to similarly partisan audiences before. Instead, because Trump refuses to divest himself from his interests in the property, activists argued Gorsuch was personally enriching the president, who continues to rake in its profits. When faced with those claims, a spokesperson for the Fund for American Studies, which organized the event, denied that the group had chosen the venue with Trump’s bank account in mind.
The venue choice wasn’t the only potential conflict of interest Gorsuch faced: the Fund for American Studies itself is partially funded by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has poured millions of dollars into anti-union causes. The same day Gorsuch delivered his speech, the Supreme Court also agreed to hear arguments challenging mandatory union fees in public sector jobs.
Prior to Gorsuch’s appointment, the Court had been deadlocked, 4-4.
“Setting aside the glaring conflict of interest in Gorsuch helping to enrich a Trump property just as several cases charging that the president is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution are making their way through the judicial system, the group he addressed is funded by the same people funding the effort to dismantle unions that Gorsuch and his fellow justices agreed to take up,” Salon Deputy Politics Editor Sophia Tesfaye wrote that month.
It’s unclear what kinds of “important issues” were discussed during Gorsuch and Sen. Alexander’s meeting on Monday night. It’s entirely possible the “issues” Alexander was referring to were whether the Supreme Court should require justices to don funny wigs, à la British judges and barristers. Whatever the case, it was one more example of bad decision-making that Justice Gorsuch simply didn’t need on his record.
This article has been updated to correct a typo in the description of Gorsuch’s potential conflict of interest. An earlier version stated that the meeting could give the appearance of “impartiality.” It has been amended to read “partiality.”