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US flag is sacred, White House says, amid flap involving Supreme Court's Alito

May 17, 2024 3:12 PM EDT

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Jr is seen during a group portrait session for the new full court at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young/ File Photo

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -A report about a U.S. flag flying upside-down in January 2021 outside Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's home caused a furor in Washington, with the White House saying on Friday President Joe Biden believes the flag is sacred and a senior senator calling for Alito to step aside from two key cases.

Alito told the New York Times that the flag had been placed by his wife, Martha-Ann Alito, on a pole outside their house in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia after a dispute with a neighbor over a sign on the neighbor's lawn critical of Republican then-President Donald Trump.

The inverted U.S. flag became a symbol of protest by Trump supporters, including those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as he sought to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden with false claims of widespread voting fraud and a "stolen" election.

Democrat Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Alito to recuse from two cases currently pending before the Supreme Court that involve the 2020 election and Capitol attack. Other Democrats, including Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representatives Hank Johnson and Adam Schiff, issued similar calls.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a regular briefing sidestepped a question about whether Biden believes Alito can rule impartially on cases related to the Jan. 6 events.

"I cannot speak to if he should recuse himself, how he should move forward on the court," Jean-Pierre said of Alito. "That is for the court to decide."

But Jean-Pierre added that she had spoken to the Democratic president about the matter and that he feels "that the American flag is sacred and we should be respecting that flag." Jean-Pierre also mentioned the "brave men and women who have sacrificed, given their lives to protect our nation."

Earlier in the day, Durbin said, "Flying an upside-down American flag - a symbol of the so-called 'Stop the Steal' movement - clearly creates the appearance of bias."

The first of the two cases Durbin mentioned is Trump's bid for immunity from prosecution on federal criminal charges for trying to reverse his 2020 defeat.

The second one involves a challenge by a Pennsylvania man to a federal criminal charge of obstruction that he faces for his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. The case has implications for Trump, who faces the same charge in the election-related criminal case brought against him by Special Counsel Jack Smith.

'REGAIN PUBLIC TRUST'

"The court is in an ethical crisis of its own making, and Justice Alito and the rest of the court should be doing everything in their power to regain public trust," Durbin said.

The Times reported that the upside-down flag flew at Alito's house on Jan. 17, 2021, not long after the Jan. 6 riot and days before Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration. Word of the flag's presence filtered back to the court, the newspaper reported.

Alito told the Times he had no involvement. "It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito in response to a neighbor's use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs," the Times quoted Alito as saying in a statement.

Alito elaborated on Friday, telling Fox News host Shannon Bream that his wife sought to address their neighbor's anti-Trump sign that used an expletive and was close to a school bus stop. The neighbor then put up a sign "personally addressing Mrs. Alito and blaming her for the Jan. 6th attacks," Bream wrote on social media.

Alito did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

David Rivkin Jr., an Alito supporter and appellate attorney whose clients include litigants in a tax case currently pending before the Supreme Court, called Durbin's push for Alito's recusal unfair and motivated by a desire for partisan gain.

"Since Justice Alito has indicated that he had nothing to do with the display of the flag, seeking his recusal is fundamentally wrong," Rivkin said. "That Senator Durbin is doing so has nothing to do with ethics and is part of a politically driven, obsessive campaign against conservative justices only, with a lack of any interest in the behavior of liberal justices."

Alicia Bannon, the director of the judiciary program at the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, said the flag display is more than "a clear ethics violation" as Alito has not apologized for or disavowed the upside-down flag.

"A Supreme Court justice appears to have embraced election denialism. That's a five-alarm fire," Bannon said.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by John Kruzel and Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)



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