WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court prides itself on the civility of its justices towards one another despite their often fierce legal disagreements -- but that collegiality is being tested.
Justice Neil Gorsuch has reportedly refused a request by Chief Justice John Roberts to wear a face mask in court amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Public Radio (NPR), citing court sources, reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes, does "not feel safe in close proximity to people who were unmasked."
NPR said Roberts had asked the other eight justices to "mask up" and they all have during recent hearings except for Gorsuch, a staunch conservative nominated by president Donald Trump.
The 67-year-old Sotomayor, who sits next to Gorsuch on the bench, has been participating in recent court hearings virtually from her chambers.
NPR said she has also been attending the justices' weekly conferences by telephone instead of in person.
Gorsuch, 54, was the only one of the eight justices in attendance on Tuesday to not wear a mask, according to journalists who attended oral arguments in the downtown Supreme Court building.
Mask-wearing has become a partisan battlefield in the United States, with some on the right condemning it as an abuse of individual liberties.
So have Covid vaccinations, and Gorsuch joined the five other conservatives on the Supreme Court last week in striking down President Joe Biden's mandatory Covid shots or testing regime for large businesses.
Sotomayor and the two other liberal justices on the court voted in favor of the vaccination-or-testing mandate.
Gorsuch's apparent refusal to wear a mask drew condemnation from Claire McCaskill, a former Democratic senator from Missouri.
"So glad I voted no on this jerk," McCaskill said of her 2017 Senate vote against Gorsuch's confirmation to the nation's highest court.
"What kind of guy does this?" McCaskill asked. "I could tell in my meeting with him that he thought he was better than everyone else, more important, smarter. Ugh."
Following the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, the Supreme Court began holding its hearings by telephone, with the justices, all of whom have since been vaccinated and boosted, working from home.
The court resumed in person hearings in October. -- Agence France-Presse