Since Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2017, he’s earned a well-deserved reputation as the Court’s most insufferable justice. In his book The Most Dangerous Branch, author David Kaplan wrote that it quickly became a running joke in the building that Gorsuch, of all people, had managed to unify the Court, since “just about everybody other than [Clarence] Thomas couldn’t stand him most of the time.”
Now, a new report from NPR’s Nina Totenberg has a 2022 update to the list of Gorsuch’s worst qualities: As the omicron variant of COVID-19 surges across the country, Neil Gorsuch has steadfastly refused to wear a mask at work.
When the Court resumed in-person oral arguments last fall, Sotomayor was the only justice to wear a mask. (All nine justices are vaccinated and have received booster shots.) But according to Totenberg, Sotomayor, whose diabetes puts her at elevated risk for serious complications from COVID-19, began feeling uncomfortable around unmasked people as cases spiked. In response, Chief Justice John Roberts asked the justices to wear masks on the bench; all agreed to do so except Neil Gorsuch, who refused. As a result, Sotomayor has since participated in oral arguments and the justices’ weekly conferences remotely from her chambers. Gorsuch continues to attend these events in-person and unencumbered by the burden of placing a simple piece of cloth over his mouth.
This kind of stunt has already become pretty standard stuff for Neil Gorsuch, who seems committed to the role of the Court’s loudest culture warrior for the rest of his judicial career. Totenberg’s reporting, however, also shines a harsh spotlight on Roberts, who has chosen to enable Gorsuch’s ostentatious preening instead of honoring Sotomayor’s simple request. Roberts could have responded here by instituting a blanket remote argument policy, for example, or by forcing Gorsuch to be the one participating from chambers. Instead, Roberts elected to punish Sotomayor—and, incidentally, the other justices who still have to sit next to Neil Gorsuch’s bare face—for her colleague’s exhausting anti-masker bullshit.
There is no human resources department to speak of at the Supreme Court, and Roberts is the closest thing any of the justices have to a supervisor. Gorsuch’s callous disregard for Sotomayor’s health demonstrates what has become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic: Relying on individual responsibility is not enough to protect those most vulnerable to this virus, because too many people simply do not care what happens to anyone but themselves. And although Sotomayor has the option to work remotely, many other immunocompromised people with inconsiderate colleagues do not. That this story comes in the wake of the Court’s decision to block Biden’s COVID-19 workplace safety rules could be praised as performance art if it weren’t such an explicit health hazard.
Gorsuch’s mask-gate is a grim reminder that no one, not even literal Supreme Court justices, is safe from their rudest coworkers or least empathetic supervisors. And, as usual, the people who are proudest to ignore the health, safety, and well-being of those around them face no meaningful consequences.
Update: On January 19, the day after Totenberg’s NPR report published, the Supreme Court released a joint statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch. “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false,” the statement read. “While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.” Astute readers will note that Totenberg reported that Roberts (not Sotomayor) asked all the justices (not just Gorsuch) to wear masks, and that “Sotomayor asked Gorusch to wear a mask” appears nowhere in her reporting.