Sotomayor and Gorsuch deny reported tensions over wearing masks at Supreme Court

Washington — Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch publicly refuted reports on Wednesday that the two were at odds over mask-wearing during proceedings at the Supreme Court, calling the reporting “false.”

In a rare joint statement released through the court, the two justices said the notion that Sotomayor asked Gorsuch to wear a mask, which he has not done during recent oral arguments, “surprised us” and is “false.”

“While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” the pair said.

The public denial comes after NPR on Tuesday published a report citing unnamed “court sources” that said Chief Justice John Roberts asked members of the court to wear masks because Sotomayor, who has Type I diabetes, did not feel safe being in close proximity to people without face coverings.

Sotomayor and Gorsuch sit next to one another on the bench, and Gorsuch has not been wearing a mask during oral arguments. NPR claimed that Gorsuch’s refusal to wear a mask led Sotomayor to participate in the justices’ closed-door weekly conferences by telephone. She also has been participating in oral arguments this year from her chambers, though the court has not elaborated on why.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sit For Their Official Photograph
Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court smile during their formal group photograph in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While much attention has been paid to Gorsuch’s lack of a mask in oral arguments, he is not the only justice to appear without one since the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. During arguments last week in cases involving President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas both shed their masks at points during the proceedings.

Sotomayor has appeared to take additional precautions during the pandemic, including wearing both a mask and face shield during a ceremony at the court for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020. Before the Omicron variant led to a surge in COVID-19 cases, she was also the only justice to wear a mask during oral arguments after the justices returned to the bench for their new term in October.

While Gorsuch and Sotomayor are at opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, the two have teamed up to promote the importance of civic education and, in their work at the Supreme Court, often find themselves in agreement on cases involving the rights of criminal defendants. 

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