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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Supreme Court justices say a media report that they were at war about the use of masks in court during the recent increase in coronavirus cases is false.
The court issued on Wednesday an unusual statement of three sentences from Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch. It stated: “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It’s not true. Although we may disagree with the law, we are friendly colleagues and friends.”
The statement was made following Nina Totenberg, NPR’s long-time Supreme Court correspondent, reported Tuesday on an alleged conflict between the two. They usually sit together when they argue in the high court.
Sotomayor, who is diabetic has been absent from hearing arguments from her chambers during the escalating growth in the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. Except for Gorsuch, her colleagues have been wearing masks while listening to arguments in the courtroom.
Totenberg reported that unidentified court sources said “Sotomayor felt unsafe near people who were not masking” and that “Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that in some way, requested that the other justices cover up.” She did not go into detail.
Gorsuch’s decision to not wear a mask “has also meant that Sotomayor is not attended the justices’ weekly meeting in person, joining instead by telephone,” Totenberg reported.
The court had no comment beyond the statement.
Sotomayor is an appointee of former President Barack Obama while Gorsuch was appointed by the former president Donald Trump. Totenberg did not respond to the AAP’s request via email for comment.
Following the NPR story, CNN also reported that “a person who was familiar with the situation” said that Sotomayor didn’t “feel at ease sitting on the bench near colleagues who weren’t masked.” Neither NPR’s story nor CNN’s report said that Sotomayor directly asked Gorsuch to wear the mask. The justices’ statement did not mention what report it was referring to.
Sotomayor, unlike her colleagues, has been wearing masks to the high court since October when the justices resumed hearing in-person arguments. They have changed their procedure in response to the coronavirus’s omicron variant.
All justices have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. They also received an additional shot. Attorneys who argue before the justices must also take a coronavirus test that is negative or argue remotely by phone or via videoconferencing. Journalists who attend in person are also required to take the test negative.
Three lawyers have had to argue on the phone this month due to positive tests. The public is currently not allowed to attend the hearings.
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