Samuel Alito’s wife claimed upside-down flag was ‘international sign of distress’

<span>Senate Democrats are demanding answers as to why Samuel Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann, flew insurrectionist-linked flags outside their homes.</span><span>Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP</span>
Senate Democrats are demanding answers as to why Samuel Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann, flew insurrectionist-linked flags outside their homes.Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

The wife of US supreme court justice Samuel Alito reportedly justified the display of an upside-down American flag at the couple’s home by saying it was “an international signal of distress”, as senior Democrats have requested a meeting with the chief justice over the growing scandal.

Martha-Ann Alito made the comments to a Washington Post reporter, the outlet reported on Saturday, when the journalist visited the couple’s Virginia home in January 2021, not long after the attack on the US Capitol by extremist supporters of Donald Trump.

She reportedly told the Washington Post at the time that the flag had been run up their flagpole in that way in response to a neighborhood dispute.

Related: Another provocative flag flown at Samuel Alito residence, report says

Flying the Stars and Stripes flag upside down is acceptable as a rare distress signal, according to the official US flag code. But these days it is more often associated with activists making an extremist sign of protest, and at the time of the January 6 insurrection it had been adopted by some on the far right amid efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory over Trump.

The Washington Post report said on Saturday, quoting the outlet’s own spokesperson, that “the Post decided not to report on the episode at the time because the flag-raising appeared to be the work of Martha-Ann Alito, rather than the justice, and connected to a dispute with her neighbors … It was not clear then that the argument was rooted in politics.”

In another twist, it was the New York Times that first reported earlier this week the display of the American flag in that fashion at the Alitos’ residence in early 2021, during a political row with neighbors.

That was swiftly followed by a second report from the Times that another flag, one originally associated with the American revolution but now associated with the far right and known as the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, was flying last year above a holiday home of the Alitos in New Jersey.

Two leading Democratic senators are requesting a meeting with the supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, in the wake of these reports. This comes on top of calls demanding that Justice Alito recuse himself from election-related cases before the court and face investigation by the US Senate, the congressional chamber that confirms federal and supreme court judges.

The Senate judiciary committee chair, Dick Durbin, and the senator and judiciary committee member Sheldon Whitehouse wrote a letter to Roberts earlier this week asking him for a meeting to discuss court ethics and to take steps to ensure that Alito recuses himself from any cases before the court concerning the January 6 attack or Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

The court did not respond to a request for comment regarding the letter.

On Saturday afternoon, despite Alito having said that the flag-flying was entirely his wife’s business, Tennessee Democratic representative Steve Cohen posted on X, formerly Twitter, that: “It’s almost too ironic that Alito would fly a Jan 6 flag calling for heavenly intervention because he felt the rule of law, which he’s supposed to uphold, was insufficient. He has no business with cases on the 2020 election – or on the separation of church and state.”

The court is considering two major cases related to the Capitol attack, including one related to charges faced by the rioters and another on whether Trump has immunity from prosecution on election interference charges. Alito is participating in both cases and has rejected calls from Democrats in the past to recuse himself on other issues.

Alito earlier said he had no part in the flying of the inverted American flag. He and the court declined to respond to requests for comment on how the “Appeal to Heaven” banner came to be flying and what it was intended to express.

Durbin and Whitehouse said they will continue to pressure the court. The plea for a meeting is a new approach after Roberts declined to testify at a hearing on supreme court ethics last year, amid a scandal over accusations of political influence and corruption aimed at Alito and Clarence Thomas, the two most conservative justices on the supreme court bench.

“Until the court and the judicial conference take meaningful action to address this ongoing ethical crisis, we will continue our efforts to enact legislation to resolve this crisis,” Durbin and Whitehouse wrote.

The American Legion US flag code states of the Stars and Stripes that “the flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property”.

The Associated Press contributed reporting