Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded in rare statements to a report that claimed Gorsuch refuses to wear a mask, forcing the high-risk Sotomayor to participate remotely from her chambers.
That report first came from NPR on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch responded in a joint statement to the press. “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us,” the justices said. “It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.”
That statement did not directly contradict the reporting from NPR, which said that Chief Justice John Roberts was the one who asked justices to wear masks in light of Sotomayor’s diabetes, which puts her at higher risk of serious complications from a COVID-19 infection.
But soon after people pointed out that discrepancy, including TPM, another statement came from the high Court. “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench,” Roberts said.
Sotomayor has been participating in oral arguments remotely from her chambers in recent weeks, and reportedly has also been calling into the justices’ weekly conference. She and Gorsuch sit next to each other on the bench.
Some underlying emotion about the pandemic has leaked into the Court’s oral arguments, particularly during a case over Biden administration vaccine mandates earlier this month.
“Can you ask us — is that what you’re doing now, to say it’s in the public interest in this situation to stop this vaccination rule with nearly a million people — let me not exaggerate — nearly three-quarters of a million people, new cases every day?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked a lawyer representing groups trying to toss a vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers. “I mean, to me, I would find that unbelievable.”
Justice Elena Kagan struck a similar note in her questioning during the same case.
“This is a pandemic in which nearly a million people have died,” she said, incredulously. “It is by far the greatest public health danger that this country has faced in the last century. More and more people are dying every day.”
Some of the conservative justices, meanwhile, used the stage to share their vaccine skepticism. Justice Samuel Alito in particular spoke about the “risk” and “adverse consequences” that could accompany vaccinations, while Gorsuch characterized it as a device with which to “control” employees.
The conservative majority ultimately slapped down the vaccine-or-test rule, while Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the liberals in upholding a vaccine mandate for health-care workers at facilities receiving federal money.
This post has been updated.