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Filmmaker who recorded Alito, Roberts says she did it ‘in service of a public good’

Lauren Windsor, the filmmaker who secretly recorded conversations with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep she falsely identified herself as a conservative Christian and made leading statements “in service of reaching a greater truth and in service of a public good.”

In recordings uploaded to the internet on Monday, Roberts and Alito respond to questions about political polarization and the ongoing “culture war” in the United States. NPR has not heard the full version of the audio or been able to independently verify it. In the excerpt, Alito says he agrees with a statement that Windsor made about the need to “return our country to a place of godliness.”

In other excerpts that Windsor published, Roberts rebuffs attempts to get him to voice his opinions on the current political state of the country saying that the court’s role is simply “deciding the cases.”

Windsor told Morning Edition that in pursuit of content for her film, Gonzo for Democracy, she originally sought out Justice Clarence Thomas after a 2023 ProPublica investigation revealed lavish gifts from Republican donor Harlan Crow that Thomas had initially failed to report. When Thomas failed to appear at two Supreme Court Historical Society events, she spoke to and recorded Alito and Roberts, then posted clips from those hidden-microphone conversations online.

The Supreme Court has not responded to requests for comment about the recordings.

The ethics of secret recordings are murky

NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik said Windsor told him that the recordings had not been edited in any meaningful way, but she still has not released the full transcripts or unedited audio. While Windsor did not follow the journalistic standards and ethics of traditional news outlets, Folkenflik says there is some utility to what she did, but it’s hard to see the whole picture.

“I think more credibility comes when you post the full transcripts, the full audio,” Folkenflik told NPR’s Ari Shaprio.

Folkenflik added that Alito and Roberts have given similar remarks in speeches and to the media in on the record interviews.

“This is so consistent with each of the two justices' public remarks," Folkenflik said. “And they have not taken any issue with what they've been claiming to have presented as saying — that it's hard to discount what was being presented here.”

In her brief encounter with Alito, Windsor said she claimed sympathetic views and said opponents of abortion rights would have to keep fighting. She says she didn’t inquire about his rulings, but instead told Alito “we just really need to win.”

Windsor says Alito’s agreement presented “a juxtaposition between Chief Justice Roberts, who was pretty forceful in saying that the court does not have a role,” and added, “I was definitely asking leading questions, but with the aim of really eliciting some kind of reaction from him.”

When asked about the journalistic ethics of secret recordings, Windsor said, “People concerned about ethics should be concerned about Justice Alito’s ethics and Justice Thomas’ ethics.”

The recordings may not have the intended effect

While Windsor hopes that these recordings will lead to further transparency from Supreme Court justices, Sarah Isgur, a former spokeswoman for the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump, warned that secret recordings might have the opposite effect.

“This, I fear, is going to push them even to a more cloistered life,” Isgur told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “Because any time they try to say who they are, like Alito saying he's a Catholic who believes the country should be more godly, they're attacked for it.”

Isgur also pointed out that the questions Windsor asked are not about his Supreme Court rulings or his legal opinions — they are specifically tied to his beliefs as a Catholic.

“The questions are also asking him, as a Catholic, don't you think the country should be more godly?” Isgur said on Morning Edition. “It's his personal views. It's not about the law or the court.”

Obed Manuel edited the digital version of this story. Nina Kravinsky produced the audio version. The audio version was edited by Adam Bearne and Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]