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Samuel Alito is the latest Supreme Court justice to face ethics questions


Democrats in the Senate say they'll take action to tighten ethics rules for U.S. Supreme Court justices. This comes amid new questions about the conduct of Justice Samuel Alito. Unlike his colleague Clarence Thomas, Alito is fighting back. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: First word of the story broke Tuesday night, when Alito launched a preventive attack against ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit, that, hours later, would publish allegations of misconduct against the justice. According to the ProPublica report, in 2008, Alito went on a high-end, all-expense-paid fishing trip to Alaska with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, a big Republican donor who has repeatedly had cases before the Supreme Court. The justice traveled to the remote Alaska site on Singer's private jet, along with Leonard Leo, a longtime leader of the conservative Federalist Society, who helped organize the trip. And the lodge where they all stayed was owned by another Republican donor who footed the bill for Alito's lodging.

The ethics issues raised in the ProPublica piece are twofold - first, that Alito did not disclose the private jet trip paid for by Singer, and, second, that Singer's hedge fund had appealed to the Supreme Court 10 times, raising questions about whether Alito should have recused himself from participating in those cases. Alito, in his prebuttal on The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page, said that no reasonable person viewing all the relevant facts would have thought that he had any conflict of interest. Alito said he only knew Singer casually, and that Singer's name appeared nowhere in court papers. ProPublica, however, noted that Singer is the founder, president and co-CEO of the hedge fund in these cases, and that Singer's name was repeatedly linked to the hedge fund and stories about the litigation. Alito never directly addressed his failure to report the free private jet trip on his financial disclosure form.

University of Virginia legal ethics professor Amanda Frost says the law is unambiguous. He was supposed to declare the trip, and he didn't.

AMANDA FROST: The statute itself is clear, and the justices can be very harsh on litigants who fail to follow statutory language. So I think they should hold themselves to that same standard.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.