WASHINGTON (AP) — Judge Samuel Alito has scoffed at criticism from foreign leaders of the Supreme Court ruling he authored overturn a constitutional right to abortion, in his first public comments since last month’s decision. The judge’s remarks drew more criticism as well as some support.
Speaking in Rome at a religious freedom summit, Alito, 72, spent only a few minutes on the subject of abortion, then only to discuss his foreign critics – an unusual step for a judge of high court.
Dressed in a tuxedo and sporting a beard he sometimes grows when the court is out of session, Alito joked that the decision he had written had been “lambasted by a whole host of foreign leaders”, then joked saying British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “paid the price” for his comments. Johnson called the decision “a big step back” shortly before resign in the midst of unrelated ethical investigations.
The ruling by the court’s conservative majority led to a dozen states banning or severely restricting abortions within days. Eventually, half of the US states should ban or seriously restrict the procedure.
Alito also had the audience laughing at the lecture, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Law School, when he said that “what really hurt me” were the remarks made “by Britain’s Prince Harry. Addressing the United Nations last week, Harry spoke of the “rollback of constitutional rights here in the United States” as one of a series of converging crises that also included the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also caught Alito’s attention during his July 21 speech in Rome at the invitation-only event. The law school released the video this week. Alito was not identified in advance as a speaker at the conference.
Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trudeau’s press secretary, Cecely Roy, said he “will always defend women’s constitutional rights, including the right to choose and access to abortion.”
While judges regularly engage in pointed exchanges with their colleagues in dueling opinions, they rarely respond to outside criticism. That’s especially true when discussing foreign leaders appearing outside the United States, said Neil Siegel, a law and political science professor at Duke Law School.
“His tone can be quite dismissive and scathing. It’s like he just doesn’t care that there are tens of millions of people in this country and abroad who deeply disagree with him,” he said. “I think the most important thing is that this is not how our judges are supposed to behave.”
Still, nothing prohibits judges from publicly discussing cases once they are decided, said Akhil Reed Amar, professor of constitutional law at Yale Law School. Alito’s comments were not about the underlying issue of abortion, but rather about foreign dignitaries weighing in on US law without necessarily knowing about the subject, he said. Johnson, for example, may have sought to distract from his own national issues, Amar said.
“It was a bit sassy of them,” said Amar, who also praised Alito for responding “with a bit of wit and style.”
The judge’s speech was criticized on Friday by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., who wrote in a tweet that the remarks were politicized and said they “should be alarming to anyone.”
It is “ironic” that Alito scoffed at international opinions even though he quoted 17th and 18th century English jurists in the opinion quashing Roe v. Wade, said Michele Goodwin, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy. “He himself invested in some pretty dark foreign ideology to do what he did in this decision,” he said.
The speech comes amid a sharp rise in the proportion of Americans who say their trust in the Supreme Court is eroding. An Associated Press poll – NORC’s Public Affairs Research Center found this week that 43% of Americans have “virtually no confidence” in the court, up from just 27% three months ago.
The decision on abortion was one of the several seismic decisions this summer, but the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the end of a nearly half-century-long abortion right guarantee had the most widespread impact.
It is also triggered profound changes in other medical caresome doctors refusing immediate treatment for serious health problems related to reproductive care for fear of violating strict abortion bans.
Alito’s speech was mostly devoted to praising religious freedom, another area where conservatives have prevailed in the Supreme Court in cases involving taxpayer dollars for Maine religious schools and the right of a football coach to pray at the 50 meter line.
He has been a judge since 2006, appointed by President George W. Bush.
Four years later, while attending President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Alito was filmed uttering the words “not true” in response to Obama’s – also unusual – criticism. another major court ruling, led by the Conservatives, the Citizens United case that opened the floodgates to corporate and union spending on federal election campaigns.
Alito has never addressed this controversy in public, but it seems clear from the questions he asked when the court heard the arguments that he took issue with Obama’s assertion that the decision overturned a century of law.
Alito never again attended the State of the Union address.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.