ThinkProgress’s Lee Fang went out to a high-profile, high-price fundraiser for the right-wing magazine the American Spectator last night, and confronted one of the gala’s distinguished guests: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
The Spectator is more than merely an ideological outlet. Spectator publisher Al Regnery helps lead a secretive group of conservatives called the “Conservative Action Project,” formed after President Obama’s election, to help lobby for conservative legislative priorities, elect Republicans (the Conservative Action Project helped campaign against Democrat Bill Owens in NY-23), and block President Obama’s judicial appointments. The Spectator’s gala last night, with ticket prices/sponsorship levels ranging from $250 to $25,000, featured prominent Republicans like RNC chairman Michael Steele, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer (a major donor to Republican campaign committees and attack ad groups), and U.S. Chamber of Commerce board member and former Allied Capital CEO William Walton. Among the attendees toasting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the keynote speaker for the event, was Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.
It’s not the first time Alito has attended the Spectator dinner. In 2008, Alito headlined the Spectator’s annual gala, helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the political magazine. According to Jay Homnick, a conservative who attended the 2008 Spectator gala, Alito spent much of his speech ripping then Vice President-elect Joe Biden as a serial plagiarizer.
As Alito entered the event last night, I approached the Justice and asked him why he thought it appropriate to attend a highly political fundraiser with the chairman of the Republican Party, given Alito’s position on the court. Alito appeared baffled, and replied, “it’s not important that I’m here.” “But,” I said, “you also helped headline this same event two years ago, obviously helping to raise political money as the keynote.” Alito replied curtly, “it’s not important,” before walking away from me.
This is hardly the first time that Justices on the Court’s far-right majority have been caught in ethically questionable hobnobbing with GOP political figures. Last month, it was reported that Justices Scalia and Thomas had attended a meeting with GOP officials arranged by the Tea Party-funding billionaire Koch brothers. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein discussed the ethical implications of the Justices’ attendance:
"There is nothing to prevent Supreme Court justices from hanging out with people who have political philosophies," said Steven Lubet, a professor of law at Northwestern University who teaches courses on Legal Ethics.
But the Koch event appears more political than, say, the Aspen Ideas festival. In its own invitation, it was described as a "twice a year" gathering "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." In addition, it’s not entirely clear what the two Justices did at the Koch event. A copy of the invitation that served as the basis for the Times’s report was posted by the liberal blog Think Progress. It provided no additional clues. A call to the Supreme Court and an email to a Koch Industries spokesperson meanwhile were not immediately returned.
What complicates the report, as Gillers notes, is that the Supreme Court, very recently, handed down a major decision on campaign finance law that Koch Industries quickly utilized. Citizens United overturned existing law by ruling that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections. Koch has always been an active political and philanthropic giver. And its checks have been sent to Democrats as well as Republicans (though weighted more heavily to the latter). This cycle, however, the company has become one of the premier bankrollers of conservative causes, and earned the enmity of Democrats for doing so.
Perhaps what’s even more troubling than Supreme Court justices’ participation in overtly political strategizing and fundraising events is that they don’t seem to see why anyone would find their participation problematic. When Alito told Fang, “It’s not important that I’m here,” he probably believed what he was saying. From someone who exercises judgment for a living, that’s downright baffling.
Maybe the problem with the Corporate Court is not that they’ve allowed their views to be swayed by right-wing and corporate interests…but that they’ve never seen those interests as anything outside of the mainstream.