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Supreme Court Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan pay their respects during the ceremony for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid as he lies in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 12, 2022. Oliver Contreras/Pool via REUTERS
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Jan 19 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an unusual joint statement from liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch denying a rift between them over wearing a face mask during oral arguments to protect against COVID-19.
"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false," Sotomayor and Gorsuch said in the statement, which was provided by a court spokesperson. "While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends."
Sotomayor, 67, has diabetes, a risk factor for complications from COVID-19. Sotomayor sits next to Gorsuch on the nine-member bench when the court hears oral arguments.
The statement appeared to be in response to reporting by National Public Radio and other media outlets that, during a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant, the justices were asked to wear masks but only Gorsuch refused. NPR's report said that it was Chief Justice John Roberts who made the request, not Sotomayor.
Roberts issued a separate statement denying the report, saying: "I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench."
As a result, according to the media reports, Sotomayor decided to participate in oral arguments and the private weekly conference among the justices from the confines of her own chambers. Reuters could not independently verify the accuracy of the reports.
The joint statement did not address why, since returning to work after the New Year, all the justices have worn masks in the courtroom except Gorsuch. From October to December, all justices were maskless in the courtroom except for Sotomayor, who consistently wore one.
On Wednesday, Gorsuch was again the only justice present not to wear a mask. Some of the other justices sometimes removed their masks when asking questions during oral arguments.
A rift between Gorsuch and Sotomayor would have been at odds with their friendly relationship on the bench. Over the years observers had noted the pair frequently laughing together. "He's a lovely person," Sotomayor told an audience in 2019.
The court returned to in-person arguments in October after hearing cases by teleconference during the pandemic. The court remains closed to the public. Arguing attorneys and journalists who cover the court must test negative for COVID-19 prior to attending arguments.
When the justices entered the courtroom on Jan. 7 to hear an emergency set of oral arguments involving two of President Joe Biden's key pandemic-related policies, only Gorsuch was maskless. Sotomayor did not take the bench at all and has continued to work from her chambers ever since.
The justices eventually blocked Biden's vaccination-or-testing mandate for businesses with at least 100 workers while allowing a federal vaccine requirement covering healthcare facilities.
Citing court sources, NPR reported that because of Sotomayor's concerns about working next to unmasked people, Roberts "in some form asked the other justices to mask up. They all did. Except Gorsuch, who, as it happens, sits next to Sotomayor on the bench."
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