Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. on Friday rejected demands from Democratic lawmakers that he recuse himself from a coming tax case after a lawyer involved in the matter interviewed him for The Wall Street Journal.
In an unusual four-page statement attached to an otherwise routine list of orders concerning pending cases, Justice Alito dismissed calls for him to step aside as “unsound.”
“There is no valid reason for my recusal in this case,” Justice Alito wrote. Any notion that his vote might be affected by his connection to the lawyer, he added, “fundamentally misunderstands the circumstances under which Supreme Court justices must work.”
The statement was his first public response to criticism that he had breached an ethical line after sitting down for multiple interviews with a lawyer in the case, David B. Rivkin Jr., who writes for the opinion pages of The Journal. The interviews prompted Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Richard J. Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to urge Justice Alito to step aside when the court hears the case in the coming term, saying that they cast doubt on his ability to be an impartial arbiter.
In recent months, the court has been under increased scrutiny over its practices after news reports detailed lavish gifts, travel and financial dealings involving the justices. Although Justice Clarence Thomas, particularly his relationship with Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire and conservative donor, has elicited much of the attention, ProPublica revealed that Justice Alito flew on a private jet provided by a hedge fund billionaire who frequently had business before the court.
Justice Alito has taken to the pages of The Journal to push back against criticisms, including writing an opinion essay to defend himself even before ProPublica published its article, and by speaking extensively with Mr. Rivkin and James Taranto, who edits The Journal’s opinion pages.
In the interviews, which The Journal described as “wide-ranging sessions” with the court’s “plain-spoken defender,” Justice Alito shared his view that Congress had no authority to impose an ethics code on the justices. Democratic lawmakers have pushed for ethics rules for the justices in the wake of the recent revelations.
“Congress did not create the Supreme Court,” he said. “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it. No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court — period.”
In his statement on Friday, Justice Alito said he had decided to respond because the tax case was scheduled to be heard soon and “because of the attention my planned participation in this case has already received.” He added that Mr. Rivkin had participated in the interviews “as a journalist, not an advocate” and that the pair had not discussed anything related to the pending case.
The justice said he saw nothing unusual in his participation, nodding in part to the close circle of advocates who frequently appear before the court. He added that justices regularly hear cases in which one or more of the lawyers is a former law clerk, a former colleague or a longtime acquaintance.
“If we recused in such cases, we would regularly have less than a full bench, and the court’s work would be substantially disrupted and distorted,” he wrote.