At the historic swearing-in of John Roberts as the 17th chief justice of the United States last September, every member of the Supreme Court, except Antonin Scalia, was in attendance. ABC News has learned that Scalia instead was on the tennis court at one of the country's top resorts, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bachelor Gulch, Colo., during a trip to a legal seminar sponsored by the Federalist Society.
Not only did Scalia's absence appear to be a snub of the new chief justice, but according to some legal ethics experts, it also raised questions about the propriety of what critics call judicial junkets.
"It's unfortunate of course that what kept him from the swearing-in was an activity that is itself of dubious ethical propriety," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, who is a recognized scholar on legal ethics.
Scalia spent two nights at the luxury resort lecturing at the legal seminar where ABC News also found him on the tennis court, heading out for a fly-fishing expedition, and socializing with members of the Federalist Society, the conservative activist group that paid for the expenses of his trip.
At a press conference, almost two weeks later, Scalia was not inclined to tell reporters his whereabouts during Roberts' swearing-in.
"I was out of town with a commitment that I could not break, and that's what the public information office told you," he said.
It "doesn't matter what it was. It was a commitment that I couldn't break," Scalia continued when questioned further.
According to the event's invitation, obtained by ABC News, the Federalist Society promised members who attended the seminar an exclusive and "rare opportunity to spend time, both socially and intellectually" with Scalia.
"I think Justice Scalia should not have gone on that trip for several reasons," Gillers commented. "They are a group with a decided political-slash-judicial profile."
One night at the resort, Scalia attended a cocktail reception, sponsored in part by the same lobbying and law firm where convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff once worked.
"You know a lot of people would be embarrassed at that. I don't think Antonin Scalia will be embarrassed," Gillers continued.
While there are ethics rules in place for lower federal court judges, there is no explicit code of ethics for the nine Supreme Court justices. Some practices have in turn come under scrutiny, such as accepting trips from groups with political and judicial agenda and gifts from private parties who may at some point have business before the court.
Ron Rotunda, a law professor at the George Mason School of Law, author of a textbook on legal ethics and who is himself a member of the Federalist Society, finds no problem with the Supreme Court justices attending events sponsored by the organization. "I'm a member of the Federalist Society, the NAACP, and the justices get invited to both, and I think that's a good idea," he said. "The organization doesn't have litigation before the judge and is unlikely to have litigation before the judge."