Follow-Up: “Observations On A Potential Supreme Court Ethics Scandal…” Yup, It’s Fake News. (Well, Mostly…)

Mark Tapscott is a veteran Washington, D.C. political pro and investigative journalist (who has weighed in at Ethics Alarms a time or two). Late yesterday he focused on clarifying the troubling Rolling Stone story I wrote about here. 

That Rolling Stone piece was headlined, “SCOTUS Justices ‘Prayed With’ Her — Then Cited Her Bosses to End Roe,” an allegation that fed directly into the pro-abortion trope that the Dobbs decision was substantially motivated by theological fervor rather than legal analysis. In the Ethics Alarms post, I expressed skepticism that the story could be accurate because no mainstream media source had picked it up, and also because any Justices praying with a representative of a religious organization before ruling on a case in which  that organization had submitted a brief would create a neon-bright appearance of impropriety. On the other hand, I found it unlikely that the publication would drop such a “bombshell” without strong evidence, since its news reporting credibility was on lengthy probation after its phantom UVA “gang rape” story fiasco in 2015.

Now the verdict’s in, thanks to Tapscott: Rolling Stone apparently hasn’t learned anything about journalism ethics the last seven years. In a “Culture” column for PJ Media, Tapscott explains:

  • The headline is deliberate deceit. It implies that the Dobbs opinion was issued following prayer sessions with an official of Liberty Counsel, a Christian public interest law firm that submitted an amicus brief in the  case. But “following” in this instance means “more than two years later.”
  • Tapscott writes,

The clear implication of that headline is that the praying and ending of Roe were directly related. And that implication is essential to one of the two main points of the authors, which is their quoting of various legal experts suggesting a conflict-of-interest problem with such praying with the justices as they were deliberating on Dobbs, with the aid of an amicus brief filed by Liberty Counsel — one of more than 140 such documents filed in the case….

  • Moreover, Tapscott learned by reading the RS article three times (and obviously more carefully than I did) that it buries a material fact.  A written clarification by Peggy Nienaber, whose off-the-record comments formed the basis for the “bombshell,” was included at the end of the piece:

“My comment was referring to past history and not practice of the past several years. During most of the history up to early 2020, I met with many people who wanted or needed prayer. Since early 2020, access to the Supreme Court has been restricted due to COVID. It has been many years since I prayed with a Justice.”

Got that? She had not prayed with any SCOTUS Justice in “many years,” nor could such sessions have occurred in the Supreme Court building for more than two years. Tapscott states, correctly,

That declaration should have appeared as the article’s fifth paragraph in order to make clear early on when the praying in question took place. But instead, it doesn’t appear until the 25th paragraph of the Rolling Stone article.

Tapscott’s conclusions from this episode:

…there are some common expectations that attend both straight news reporting and advocacy writing, the most fundamental of which is that readers can expect journalists to be intellectually honest in their presentation of facts, perspectives, and logic.

Violating that most basic of expectations is invariably an indicator that the author(s) is up to something that has little to do with encouraging intelligent discussion among varying opinions and everything to do with pushing a chosen narrative, or, to put it more bluntly, peddling propaganda… the Rolling Stone article’s headline perfectly captured the deceptive narrative presented by the authors — Peggy’s praying with justices led to Dobbs and the downfall of Roe. Distortion, not reality.

Good job, Mark.

But…

The fact that the organization’s staff ever prayed with Justices in the Court building is still troubling. It should not have been permitted, and the Justices involved should have known they were treading carelessly in a conflict of interest minefield.

11 thoughts on “Follow-Up: “Observations On A Potential Supreme Court Ethics Scandal…” Yup, It’s Fake News. (Well, Mostly…)

  1. “The fact that the organization’s staff ever prayed with Justices in the Court building is still troubling. It should not have been permitted, and the Justices involves should have known they were treading carelessly in a conflict of interest minefield.”

    Yup. This makes it better than actively praying/meeting/socializing/being alone in the same room as/smiling too fondly at a party in a case before you, but it’s still the kind of thing you want to avoid, and an unforced error.

  2. I really fail to see the point of anyone being invited into the building for the purpose of praying with the justices. I am reasonably certain that any justice who wants and/or needs to pray will do so regardless of location or those present, without assistance or prompting. (I do it all the time.) I’m also reasonably certain that many pro-abortion advocates would prefer that they not be allowed to pray at all, perhaps taking an oath of godlessness.

      • Agreed, but I sometimes think we are playing games at this point. Thomas is clearly skeptical of any substantive due process analysis, so no praying, praying, or swimming in a pool together isn’t going to change his mind one way or the other.

  3. “The fact that the organization’s staff ever prayed with Justices in the Court building…”
    Politifact will now rate the report as “mostly true”.

  4. The problem is “praying with” may carry an untrue connotation. Without more details, it’s hard to know what exactly happened. I don’t know who has access to justices or the rules surrounding it, but could easily see someone visiting with a justice and at the end saying “Do you mind if I pray for you?” I could see that being called “praying with” them.

    • I agree. That has happened in some if my cases. For instance, I represented a company in a dispute over a lease against a tenant who fancied himself a preacher and would be messiah. At the start of court proceedings, manipulative fucker that he was, he would ask the court if he could say a prayer. The court indulged him, not wanting to be disrespectful of his religious beliefs or practices but soon realized he was playing games (like when he wanted to say a prayer with the jury to give them “wisdom” which the judge flatly rejected), and shut him down.

      Also, this lady doesn’t say when, where, how, why or with whom she prayed. If it was years ago, then it wasn’t with Justices Comey Barrett, Kavanaugh, or Gorsuch. It would have been Scalia? Thomas? Roberts? Bader Ginsburg? Alito? Would they be dumb enough nit see the problem with that? I highly doubt it. Did she pray in SCOTUS Chambers or at church/Mass or outside the courthouse? Either way, I am skeptical.

      jvb

      • By Rolling Stones’ logic, I ate dinner with Pres. George Bush the Elder. I met him and his wife at an Italian restaurant where my family was dining when they came in with their security detail. Details matter.

        jvb

        • Or, better yet, I am having an affair with my dentist, who doesn’t charge me because of our relationship. Sounds questionable, right? What would you if I told you my wife is my dentist. Scandal evaporates, ¿no?

          jvb

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