The usually awesome Supreme Court sparked a dose of controversy this week when NPR reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was forced to participate in hearings via teleconference because Justice Neil Gorsuch — who sits next to her on the bench – refused to wear a mask.
The court has been holding in-person hearings for months, with Sotomayor during that time remaining the only judge who chose to wear a mask. She has diabetes, a risk factor that puts her at increased risk of serious illness or death if she contracts COVID-19.
But amid skyrocketing cases of the new omicron variant this month, Chief Justice John Roberts has apparently instructed all of his colleagues to mask up, according to NPR. It was a request that all were happy to accept, given the state of Sotomayor – with the exception of Gorsuch.
In fact, he also reportedly refused to wear a mask for the weekly court conference, a meeting Sotomayor also decided to attend remotely.
Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
But the two judges were quick to quell the rumors on Wednesday, issuing a rare joint statement denying any tension — or even that any conversation had taken place about Gorsuch’s decision not to wear a mask.
“Reporting that Judge Sotomayor asked Judge Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. This is untrue,” Sotomayor and Gorsuch said in the joint statement shared by the court on Wednesday — despite NPR reporting that it was Roberts who asked Gorsuch to wear the mask, not Sotomayor.
NPR released a statement in response stating that it “supports Nina Totenberg’s reporting.”
“Totenberg never reported that Judge Sotomayor asked Judge Gorsuch to wear a mask, nor did she report that anyone reprimanded him,” said NPR spokesperson Ben Fishel.
RELATED: The Supreme Court’s Golden Rule: Only Republican Leaders Hold Real Power
Roberts later issued a separate statement to The Hill, saying he hadn’t asked Gorsuch to mask up either — or any other judge for that matter.
“I did not ask Judge Gorsuch or any other judge to wear a mask on the bench,” Roberts said in a statement provided to The Hill. NPR did not respond to a request for comment from the outlet.
In the wake of the controversy, insider reports quickly emerged on CNN and elsewhere that Sotomayor had “expressed concerns” to Roberts but no one had directly asked Gorsuch to wear a mask, further muddying the waters on what exactly had happened.
It’s a drama that underlies the Supreme Court’s growing political polarization and rising levels of personal conflict that have overtaken the chamber in recent months, as the court’s conservative supermajority looks set to tackle precedents. longtime as Roe versus Wade.
RELATED: Republicans Have a Plan for Their Justices – And It Goes Far Beyond Roe vs. Wade
Nina Totenberg, NPR’s longtime Supreme Court correspondent, cites several moments of palpable anger from the court’s liberal justices that have boiled over recently, including eye-rolling, speeches from the bench and even an anecdote on the color draining from Judge Elena Kagan’s face as one of the conservative judges speaks.
While all of this is happening, the more experienced members of the court – on both sides – have tried to keep tensions to a minimum, citing reduced public confidence due to recent accusations of partisanship. It is not clear that these efforts have, so far, worked.
“People in the court, in my time at least, think the Constitution, the country…the court is much more important than them and they kind of hold it together to adjudicate cases properly and hear with each other in a civil manner,” Judge Clarence Thomas said during a commencement address at Duquesne University, according to NPR.