A prominent news outlet vilified Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch on Tuesday, claiming that he refused to wear a face mask around fellow Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is at risk for developing complications of COVID if she were to contract the virus because she has diabetes.
But a statement released by Gorsuch and Sotomayor on Wednesday dumped cold water on the accusation.
What was claimed?
NPR reported, citing anonymous sources, that Gorsuch refused to comply with a request from Chief Justice John Roberts to wear face masks in court.
"Sotomayor did not feel safe in close proximity to people who were unmasked. Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form asked the other justices to mask up," the story claimed. "They all did. Except Gorsuch, who, as it happens, sits next to Sotomayor on the bench. His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices' weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone."
The claim about the mask preceded nearly 2,000 words about the ideological divide between justices on the court. Thus, the story attempted to frame Gorsuch's alleged unkindness toward Sotomayor as a political issue.
In fact, the story described Gorsuch as a "prickly justice" who is "not exactly beloved even by his conservative soulmates on the court."
But what is the truth?
The media predictably spread the story like wildfire, which resulted in Gorsuch being condemned on social media. Liberal commentator Elie Mystal called Gorsuch a "dick," while MSNBC host Rachel Maddow questioned how Gorsuch could live with himself and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe said the alleged refusal to mask up demonstrates "just what kind of jerk" Gorsuch is.
Now, it appears that the criticism was unfounded.
"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false," Sotomayor and Gorsuch said in a joint statement. "While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends."
The statement came after Fox News anchor Shannon Bream, the network’s chief legal correspondent, disputed NPR's report late Tuesday.
"I am told that is not accurate. A source at the Supreme Court says there's been no blanket admonition or request from Chief Justice Roberts that the other justices begin wearing masks to arguments," Bream reported. "The source further stated Justice Sotomayor did not make any such request to Justice Gorsuch. I’m told, given that fact, there was also no refusal by Justice Gorsuch. The justices are all vaccinated and boosted, and they do test before taking the bench for arguments."
How did NPR respond?
Despite the statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch, NPR is standing by its reporting. The news outlet said the joint statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch did not directly dispute the story's claim about a mask directive coming from Roberts.
"NPR stands by Nina Totenberg's reporting. Totenberg never reported that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask, nor did she report that anyone admonished him. She did report that Chief Justice John Roberts; 'in some form asked the other justices to mask up' — and Gorsuch was the only one who did not," the statement said.
NPR spokesman Ben Fishel added in a separate statement, "The statement released by Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch does not contradict the reporting in Totenberg’s piece."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include NPR's statements.