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Alito neighbor gives detailed account of 'nasty' dispute that became national news

Emily Baden stands in her backyard in San Francisco. Before moving to San Francisco, she was neighbors with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who she says was a quiet observer to heated exchanges between her and Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito, regarding signs on the Baden family’s front yard.
Marissa Leshnov for NPR
Emily Baden stands in her backyard in San Francisco. Before moving to San Francisco, she was neighbors with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who she says was a quiet observer to heated exchanges between her and Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito, regarding signs on the Baden family’s front yard.

A liberal former neighbor of conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is publicly offering her account of a series of tense interactions she had with Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, around the time of the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The saga began as a dispute over anti-Trump lawn signs and culminated in a profanity-filled confrontation on the street, which Justice Alito witnessed.

“This was one of the craziest things I've ever experienced in my life,” said the neighbor, Emily Baden, in an interview with NPR. “The power imbalance between these people and myself is huge. Like it literally couldn't get any bigger.”

Justice Alito has cited that neighborhood dispute as the context for the upside-down American flag that flew in front of his home in Northern Virginia in the days after the Capitol riot.

Sailors have historically used the upside-down flag as a symbol of distress. More recently, the upside-down American flag also became associated with the pro-Trump “stop the steal” movement and efforts to keep the former president in power. Some Trump supporters carried upside-down flags at the Jan. 6 riot. Because of that association, Democrats have called for Alito to recuse himself from cases related to Trump and the insurrection.

Alito has rejected those arguments and said his wife alone — over Justice Alito’s objections — raised the upside-down flag after the argument with Baden.

“My wife’s reasons for flying the flag are not relevant for present purposes,” Alito wrote to Democratic members of Congress, “but I note that she was greatly distressed at the time due, in large part, to a very nasty neighborhood dispute in which I had no involvement.”

He said that his wife was also solely responsible for displaying another flag, known as the “Appeal to Heaven,” at the Alito’s beach house in New Jersey. That flag dates back to the American Revolution and, in more recent years, has also been embraced by some far-right religious conservatives. “My wife is fond of flying flags,” Alito wrote. “I am not.”

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. (left) and his wife Martha-Ann Alito, pay their respects at the casket of Reverend Billy Graham at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in 2018.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
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AP
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. (left) and his wife Martha-Ann Alito, pay their respects at the casket of Reverend Billy Graham at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in 2018.

Baden told NPR that Alito’s explanation for the upside-down flag is “ludicrous” and does not match the timeline of the neighborhood dispute. Baden acknowledges that she called Martha-Ann Alito the “c-word” on the street during one encounter, which she says Martha-Ann Alito initiated. But she notes that the incident took place weeks after the upside-down flag was raised in front of the Alito residence, according to reporting from the New York Times, which broke the story.

The Supreme Court did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.

A series of increasingly heated encounters

Baden and her husband (then boyfriend) moved in to her mother’s home in northern Virginia in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to stop working as an actor and restaurant server in New York.

Baden describes herself as a “leftist,” but says she initially did not think much about the Alitos down the street. The Alito house is farther down the cul-de-sac, and not visible from her mother’s front yard.

After Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Baden celebrated and put up a handmade sign in the yard. On one side it said “BYE-DON,” and on the other “F*** Trump.”

One day, Baden says, the wind blew the sign down. According to Baden, Martha-Ann Alito happened to drive by and thanked Baden for taking the sign down. But Baden had no intention of leaving the sign down.

“I say, ‘I'm going to keep the sign up. Thank you. Bye.’ Or something like that. And that was it,” she says.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Baden put up a new sign stating, “You are complicit” and “Trump Is A Fascist.”

The following day, Baden says she and her husband were sitting in their car parked in front of her mother’s house, when someone drove up next to them.

Abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside Supreme Court Justice Alito's home in Northern Virginia on June 27, 2022.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside Supreme Court Justice Alito's home in Northern Virginia on June 27, 2022.

“The person inside just stares at us, just glares at us,” Baden says. “And I was just sitting there, like, thinking to myself, ‘oh, my God, that's that's Mrs. Alito. That's her.’ And she's stopped there for a period of time that feels like forever and then drives off.”

“I texted some friends like, ‘You guys will never believe what just happened. I'm so weirded out right now,’” she says.

About a week or so later, according to the New York Times, the upside-down American flag started flying in front of the Alitos’ house. Baden says she never saw it.

Then, on Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden was set to be inaugurated as president. Baden says she and her husband decided to drive by the Alito home out of curiosity.

“I don't know if I expected to see anything or what I expected to see,” she says.

Baden says Martha Ann-Alito happened to be in front of the house.

“And she sees us and runs out to the street and she's yelling something and we don't hear it,” Baden says. “Our windows are up and we're in motion. So we don't hear what she's yelling.”

The street is a cul-de-sac, which meant Baden and her husband had to turn around and pass by the Alito home a second time.

“And we see in our rearview mirror that she, like, spits at our car, or it looks like she spat at our car and then we just got the hell out of there,” Baden says. In Baden’s account, Alito was not close enough to the car to make any contact.

The final – and most heated – encounter between Baden and the Alitos took place on Feb. 15, 2021.

“My husband and I are just in the driveway. We're getting the trash cans. And then the Alitos” - both Justice Alito and Martha-Ann Alito - “walk up, they presumably were just taking a walk.”

Baden says she and her husband were startled to see them.

“And then then Mrs. Alito says something like, ‘well, well, well, if it isn't the the f****** fascists, Emily and my husband's name and my mom's name, you're - you're a f****** fascist.’”

Baden says she was surprised to hear Martha-Ann Alito use each of their full names. Baden had never introduced herself by name, and she and her husband were not yet married and did not share a last name.

When Baden lived in Northern Virginia, she had series of tense interactions she had with Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, around the time of the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
/ Marissa Leshnov for NPR
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Marissa Leshnov for NPR
When Emily Baden lived in Northern Virginia, she had a series of tense interactions with Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, around the time of the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“And that was when I spoke back,” Baden says. “I just said, like, ‘How dare you behave this way? You represent the highest court in the land. What are you doing? I'm a stranger to you. This is because of my sign? That's insane.’”

Baden acknowledges that she called Martha-Ann Alito the “c-word.”

Alito described the use of “foul language” in his letter, and the “vilest epithet that can be addressed to a woman.”

Baden told NPR she now regrets using the word.

“They're choosing to harass and intimidate us when we are nothing to them. We're just random people,” Baden says. “So that would have been the message that I wanted to convey. And, you know, and if a curse word cheapened that somehow, then, yeah, I would say that I regretted saying it.”

Baden says Justice Alito remained silent throughout the entire encounter. As Baden yelled, the Alitos walked away.

“Mr. Alito is walking away much quicker,” she remembered. “he really got out of there.”

Soon after, Baden’s husband called the police and recorded the call. She shared the recording with NPR. The officer who answered told them that there was nothing he could do after the fact, but said that he would call the Alitos’ protective detail.

He told Baden’s husband to call the police again if there was another incident. But Baden says that was the last time that the Alitos and Baden encountered each other.

“My wife is a private citizen, and she possesses the same First Amendment rights as every other American,” Alito wrote in his letter to Congress. “She makes her own decisions, and I have always respected her right to do so.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
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