In early July 2008, Samuel Alito stood on a riverbank in a remote corner of Alaska. The Supreme Court justice was on vacation at a luxury fishing lodge that charged more than $1,000 a day, and after catching a king salmon nearly the size of his leg, reported ProPublica. Alito posed for a picture. To his left, a man stood beaming: Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who has repeatedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in his favor in high-stakes business disputes.
Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who has repeatedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in his favor in high-stakes business disputes flew Alito to Alaska on a private jet. If the justice chartered the plane himself, the cost could have exceeded $100,000 one way.
In the years that followed, Singer’s hedge fund came before the court at least 10 times in cases where his role was often covered by the legal press and mainstream media. In 2014, the court agreed to resolve a key issue in a decade-long battle between Singer’s hedge fund and the nation of Argentina. Alito did not recuse himself from the case and voted with the 7-1 majority in Singer’s favor. The hedge fund was ultimately paid $2.4 billion.
Alito did not report the 2008 fishing trip on his annual financial disclosures. By failing to disclose the private jet flight Singer provided, Alito appears to have violated a federal law that requires justices to disclose most gifts, according to ethics law experts.
Experts said they could not identify an instance of a justice ruling on a case after receiving an expensive gift paid for by one of the parties.
“If you were good friends, what were you doing ruling on his case?” said Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor and leading expert on recusals. “And if you weren’t good friends, what were you doing accepting this?” referring to the flight on the private jet.
Justices are almost entirely left to police themselves on ethical issues, with few restrictions on what gifts they can accept. When a potential conflict arises, the sole arbiter of whether a justice should step away from a case is the justice him or herself.
ProPublica’s investigation sheds new light on how luxury travel has given prominent political donors — including one who has had cases before the Supreme Court — intimate access to the most powerful judges in the country. Another wealthy businessman provided expensive vacations to two members of the high court, ProPublica found. On his Alaska trip, Alito stayed at a commercial fishing lodge owned by this businessman, who was also a major conservative donor. Three years before, that same businessman flew Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, on a private jet to Alaska and paid the bill for his stay.
Such trips would be unheard of for the vast majority of federal workers, who are generally barred from taking even modest gifts.
Leonard Leo, the longtime leader of the conservative Federalist Society, attended and helped organize the Alaska fishing vacation. Leo invited Singer to join, according to a person familiar with the trip, and asked Singer if he and Alito could fly on the billionaire’s jet. Leo had recently played an important role in the justice’s confirmation to the court. Singer and the lodge owner were both major donors to Leo’s political groups.
ProPublica’s examination of Alito’s and Scalia’s travel drew on trip planning emails, Alaska fishing licenses, and interviews with dozens of people including private jet pilots, fishing guides, former high-level employees of both Singer and the lodge owner, and other guests on the trips.
ProPublica sent Alito a list of detailed questions last week, and on Tuesday, the Supreme Court’s head spokeswoman told ProPublica that Alito would not be commenting. Several hours later, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Alito responding to ProPublica’s questions about the trip.
Alito said that when Singer’s companies came before the court, the justice was unaware of the billionaire’s connection to the cases. He said he recalled speaking to Singer on “no more than a handful of occasions,” and they never discussed Singer’s business or issues before the court.
Alito said that he was invited to fly on Singer’s plane shortly before the trip and that the seat “would have otherwise been vacant.” He defended his failure to report the trip to the public, writing that justices “commonly interpreted” the disclosure requirements to not include “accommodations and transportation for social events.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Singer told ProPublica that Singer didn’t organize the trip and that he wasn’t aware Alito would be attending when he accepted the invitation. Singer “never discussed his business interests” with the justice, the spokesperson said, adding that at the time of trip, neither Singer nor his companies had “any pending matters before the Supreme Court, nor could Mr. Singer have anticipated in 2008 that a subsequent matter would arise that would merit Supreme Court review.”
Leo did not respond to questions about his organizing the trip but said in a statement that he “would never presume to tell” Alito and Scalia “what to do.”
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