On Friday evening, Justice Neil Gorsuch will be the featured banquet speaker at an annual conference of Florida Federalist Society chapters. Only ticketed attendees for this sold-out event, however, will have the privilege of hearing what one-ninth of the Supreme Court has to say; Gorsuch’s appearance, per the conference’s schedule, is closed to the press. Conspicuously, it appears to be the only event from which reporters will be barred. 

The Federalist Society is a network of conservative lawyers ostensibly formed to “sponsor fair, serious, and open debate” about the proper role of law in society. Among some of its members’ notable accomplishments are handling President Donald Trump’s judicial nominee selection process and, more recently, cheering on the January 6 attempted coup. This year’s agenda includes a panel entitled “The End of Roe v. Wade?” which features esteemed anti-choice advocates like Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, two months removed from asking Gorsuch and his fellow justices to overturn Roe at oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Other speakers at this allegedly nonpartisan debate club convention include former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. 

The code of conduct for federal judges requires that they act in a way that “promotes public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.” It also prohibits them from “making speeches for a political organization or candidate, or publicly endorsing or opposing a candidate for public office.” 

Under the circumstances, speaking at a multi-day convention sponsored by an organization like the Federalist Society and headlined by some of the Republican Party’s highest-profile politicians—people who may or may not have aspirations to run for office in 2024—could be deemed, at the very least, suspect. Fortunately for Gorsuch, Supreme Court justices are not beholden to that code of ethics, or any formal code of ethics, for that matter. Unfortunately for Gorsuch, all convention attendees are apparently required to wear masks unless eating or drinking, which has been kind of a sticky subject for him of late.  

The justices have faced increasing scrutiny for attending similar closed-door events that might call their impartiality into question. A decade ago, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia drew criticism for attending political strategy retreats sponsored by Koch Industries. Justice Samuel Alito raised eyebrows in 2014 when the Federalist Society announced it would bar media from attending his keynote address; later, a Court spokesperson clarified that the event was open to the press, but limited attendees covering the event to pen, paper, and still cameras. In 2017, Gorsuch spoke at the Trump International Hotel in Washington two weeks before the Court was set to hear arguments on the president’s Muslim ban. Just last year, Justice Amy Coney Barrett agreed to give a speech at the Mitch McConnell Center at the University of Louisville—an invite-only event where recording was prohibited

Reformers have pushed for legislation that would finally bind Supreme Court justices to a more robust ethics code. Chief Justice John Roberts, however, has insisted that no such obligation is necessary, since the justices demonstrate “exceptional integrity” already. The reality is simpler: Being a life-tenured Supreme Court justice means you are allowed to talk to whoever you want, whenever you want, without facing any meaningful consequences.

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