Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Masking Tension Reports in Supreme Court: 'I'm Choosing to Be Safe'

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Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.

Erin Schaff/AFP/ Getty Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is speaking out amid reports of mask-related tension between herself and fellow Justice Neil Gorsuch.

While appearing virtually on Tamron Hall's eponymous show Wednesday, the host asked Sotomayor, 67, about the "rare statement" she and Gorsuch, 54, released last week, denying that she had asked him to wear a face mask, amid her own ongoing decision to do so.

"Each individual has to make that choice for themselves, and I think that it's important to remember that people feel differently about these issues, and you don't have to engage in negative colloquy with friends or colleagues about the question," said Sotomayor. "You can engage in conversation around it, and respect the choice that each person is making."

"And that's the best, or the most, I can say about that situation with respect to my work environment. I'm choosing to be safe," she added.

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Sotomayor — who was the only justice to wear a mask last October, when the justices returned to the bench for the first time in 18 months amid the coronavirus pandemic — and Gorsuch issued the brief statement on Jan. 19.

It came one day after a story published by longtime NPR court reporter Nina Totenberg, who wrote that, according to sources, Sotomayor chose not to participate in person in a recent court meeting because Gorsuch refused a request to wear a face mask.

Per Totenberg's sources, Sotomayor did not want to be in proximity to Gorsuch unmasked, either during arguments or in the judges' conferences. But the joint statement, which was sent to PEOPLE by the court, refuted the dispute described by NPR.

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"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us," Gorsuch and Sotomayor said. "It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends."

In a separate statement, Chief Justice John Roberts also said, "I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench."

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In her Wednesday interview with Hall, 51, Sotomayor said she feels "blessed" that she has a career "where I can [make] a choice to protect myself."

"There are many, many people Tamron, [as] you know, that don't have that alternative, who are forced to physically go into work," the justice said. "I can, thankfully, work virtually, so I've made a choice for myself to do that, because it's safer for me."

Sotomayor describes herself as a "juvenile diabetic" who has had diabetes for "over 60 years," but considers herself "very healthy," which she credited to keeping vigilant.

"I stay that way because I pay attention to my health, the way I think most people should," she explained. "So I, for myself, believe that I should be masked. When I'm not, others are — because here I am with you virtually, but I do have people in the room but they're far away and they're masked."

"I take as much care as I can," Sotomayor added.

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