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Justice Samuel Alito

Photo by Embassy of Italy in the US/ CC BY-ND 2.0

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

U.S. Supreme Court justices, in theory, are supposed to avoid being overtly partisan. Although they're nominated and confirmed by partisan politicians their general goal is appear above the fray, deciding cases on the basis of the facts and the law, rather than political ideology.

But Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, is drawing vehement criticism for a Federalist Society speech that, critics say, was full of flat-out partisanship and Fox News-like fear-mongering.

On Thursday night, Alito gave the keynote address at the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention, which was strictly an online event this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And according to Slate's Mark Joseph Stern, Alito "abandoned any pretense of impartiality in his speech, a grievance-laden tirade against Democrats, the progressive movement, and the United States' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alito's targets included COVID-related restrictions, same-sex marriage, abortion, Plan B, the contraceptive mandate, LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, and five sitting Democratic senators."

Stern notes that Alito started the speech by slamming the U.S. Judicial Conference's effort to forbid federal judges from being members of the Federalist Society, an alliance of right-wing attorneys. Alito claimed that liberals are trying to "hobble the debate that the Federalist Society fosters" and claimed that law school students who join that organization are telling him that they "face harassment and retaliation if they say anything that departs from the law school orthodoxy."

"Remarkably, Alito did not just grouse about the outcome of certain cases, but the political context of those decisions — and the broader cultural and political forces behind them," Stern explains. "Although the justice accused several Democratic senators of being unprofessional, he himself defied the basic principles of judicial conduct."

Stern points out that Alito, during his speech, was highly critical of governors who have issued stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements in their states because of the COVID-19 pandemic, attacking them as "previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty." According to Stern, Alito painted President Barack Obama's administration as hostile to freedom of religion.

It should be noted, however, that Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are known for being churchgoing Christians. The former president is far from an atheist, let alone a militant one. But Obama has stressed that freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution offers protections to people of all religious stripes — from Protestants and Catholics to Muslims to Buddhists — and protects the civil liberties of atheists and agnostics as well.

"Alito waded into fierce political debates over public health during a pandemic, reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, and other issues that routinely come before his court," Stern observes. "It is wildly inappropriate for a justice to assume the role of Fox News commentators, and unwise in light of progressives' mounting doubt about the Supreme Court's legitimacy."

Gabe Roth of Fix the Court, a group that is highly critical of the Supreme Court's move to the far right, issued a statement slamming Alito's Federalist Society speech.

"Full of disinformation on the state of the First Amendment, how women's reproductive systems work and the goals of a milquetoast judicial ethics proposal, Justice Alito's speech Thursday was more befitting a Trump rally than a legal society," Roth wrote.

According to Roth, "Alito's decision to speak about COVID's impact on religious exercise is unconscionable at a time when cases concerning this very topic remain active at the Supreme Court and across the federal judiciary. If there were enforceable recusal standards at the High Court, this would be a ripe opportunity for a motion to disqualify. Last night proved once and for all that the Supreme Court needs a formal code of conduct."

More criticism of Alito's speech has come from Esquire's Charles P. Pierce, who wrote, "Alito hit all the wingnut G spots — marriage equality, 'religious liberty,' lying about the Plan B contraceptive, the jackboots of social media descending on honest conservative voices, why criticism equals 'censorship,' the protocols put in place by besieged state governors for dealing with the pandemic, and 'celebrity chefs.' It was such a grotesque partisan performance that you almost forgot to wonder why in hell a sitting Supreme Court justice was addressing a political pressure group in the first place.

Here are some Twitter comments on Alito's speech:

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