The Stench from the Bench

The Washington Post reported recently that Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch would join Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and Trump’s White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in speaking to the Federalist Society. They did and the media, as reported, was excluded. https://wapo.st/3 Jua6Dz  Even rev.com, the repository of many political speeches, could not acquire a transcript.

 I have it on pure speculation, good enough in a Trumpworld, that in a rare act of dexterity, Mike Pence got off his knees and stood erect at the podium during his portion of the show. One wonders how he was received given his shocking one-time decision to comply with the Constitution and the law in connection with Trump’s ongoing attempt to overturn the 2020 election by whatever means will work for him, including violence against the police.

A related question is hanging regarding DeSantis who swings between sycophantic adoration of Trump and hints that he may run against Trump in 2024. McEnany has no such problem. She’s not running for anything but the money. Her connection with the truth is so remote she could satisfy her obligations by just sending a copy of Big Little Lies to sit on the podium during Pence’s talk.

This wasn’t Gorsuch’s first such speech. He did a victory lap at the Federalist Society in November 2017 just after his confirmation to the Supreme Court. https://politi.co/3LySkRt Not surprisingly, perhaps, the only other Justice present then was Justice Alito who has spoken to the Federalists multiple times. In Gorsuch’s 2017 speech, he,

vowed to continue to expound the group’s favored judicial philosophies from his new post. “Originalism has regained its place and textualism has triumphed and neither is going anywhere on my watch,” the justice vowed.

Very interestingly, neither the Supreme Court nor the Federalist Society would say whether Gorsuch was paid to appear and, if so, by whom. Why, I wonder, would they not answer that simple question if he were not going to be paid? Refusing to answer in this context is analogous to pleading the 5th Amendment.

To be fair, it is reported that “liberal justices” are also “often guests of progressive organizations such as the American Constitution Society.” Despite all of that, or because of it, the justices are making public statements defending the high court’s impartiality and integrity. Retiring Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his book that,

“Political groups may favor a particular appointment but once appointed a judge naturally decides a case in the way that he or she believes the law demands. It is a judge’s sworn duty to be impartial, and all of us take that oath seriously.”

Well, maybe not “all of us.” The sordid conduct of some Justices has now reached the nadir of ethical practice. Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, has defended the court’s “independence” during a lecture at the University of Notre Dame, but failed to mention that his wife, Ginni Thomas, is an avowed right-wing sycophant and Trump lover. She has been widely reported to have played a role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, has argued far and wide that the 2020 election was stolen, and on and on. And now, we have reports that Ms. Thomas texted multiple times with Mark Meadows, then serving as Chief of Staff to Trump, that Meadows should do everything in his power to overturn the election.

As you likely recall, Thomas was the sole dissenting vote in the case about whether Trump had to turn over documents to the January 6 Select Committee. In Thomas’s participation in that case, there was no mention of his wife’s activities and no apparent concern about the grotesque conflict of interest, or appearance thereof. He apparently thinks he has no disclosure obligations, no recusal obligations regarding participation in cases in which his spouse is actively and aggressively interested.

Something is rotten here – ‘here’ meaning ‘right here,’ not Denmark – and the stench, has only gotten worse in recent days.

Lest we forget, judicial “ethics” also did not stop conservative icon Antonin Scalia from taking trips paid for by … someone not him. Indeed, according to New York Times reporting, Justice Scalia took more than,

258 subsidized trips … from 2004 to 2014. Justice Scalia went on at least 23 privately funded trips in 2014 alone to places like Hawaii, Ireland and Switzerland, giving speeches, participating in moot court events or teaching classes. A few weeks before his death, he was in Singapore and Hong Kong. [https://nyti.ms/3Dk8fPE]

A private individual provided Scalia with a free room at his ranch even though he had business before the Supreme Court. Again, according to the Times,

legal experts said they saw nothing wrong with Mr. Scalia’s accepting a free room at Mr. Poindexter’s lodge. While the Ethics in Government Act, adopted after Watergate, requires high-level federal employees, including judges, to fill out disclosure reports for reimbursements worth more than $335, the visit to the ranch might not have required a formal disclosure, because accommodations provided by a private individual are exempt under current rules.

WHAT????

All my years in private practice I fretted over conflicts of interest issues and Supreme Court justices can accept luxury hotel accommodations if they’re provided by “private individuals?!?!” No wonder “Supreme Court members took 1,009 paid trips between 2004 and 2014.” According to my calculations, that averages to 11 trips per year per Justice. And these are not trips to Bridgeport.

The destinations often are luxurious, including the Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic, where Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was listed as a speaker for an event last February, or Zurich, where Justice Scalia traveled at least three times on privately funded trips.

In 2011, a liberal advocacy group, Common Cause, questioned whether Justice Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas should have disqualified themselves from participating in the landmark Citizens United case on campaign finance because they had attended a political retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., sponsored by the conservative financier Charles G. Koch. Mr. Koch funds groups that could benefit from the ruling. The disclosure report filed by Justice Thomas made no mention of the retreat. It said only that he had taken a trip, funded by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, to Palm Springs to give a speech.

Over roughly a decade, Justice Scalia took 21 trips sponsored by the Federalist Society, to places like Park City, Utah; Napa, Calif.; and Bozeman, Mont. The Federalist Society also paid for trips by Justice Alito during that period, but not for any liberal justices, the disclosure reports show.

The disclosure reports, such as they are, reportedly “show that the majority of the privately funded trips — by far — are sponsored by universities.” Maybe, but it’s a fair bet that on those trips, the Justices don’t stay in dorm rooms. Are we to believe the suggestion that universities paid to send Justices to Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Switzerland? I also note that universities are sometimes litigants or amicus curiae (friend of the court) in cases of major importance.

The cited Times story about all this was published almost exactly five years ago. At that time legislation was pending in Congress to “require the Supreme Court to create a formal ethics system, beyond the Ethics in Government Act, like the one that governs actions of all other federal judges. That system is known as the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.” It should say “United States Judges Other Than Supreme Court Justices” because it apparently does not apply to them in any meaningful way – each of them decides for himself whether his conduct raises ethical concerns.

Chief Justice Roberts has argued that the Supreme Court, even though it generally abides by this judicial ethics code, is not obligated to do so. It restricts how much judges can be paid for private travel, and limits other activities outside the court, such as allowing private organizations to use “the prestige of judicial office” for fund-raising purposes.

Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said that society could benefit when justices — who are paid about $250,000 a year, far less than they would earn in private practice — leave Washington to speak about how the court works.

“Society could benefit.” Perhaps, if that’s what the Justices always spoke about to other judges, law students and the like. Somehow, I doubt that’s what Scalia was talking about in Zurich.

Self-policing is a nice concept but fails in practice a good deal of the time. And since the Supreme Court is the top of the third branch of government, enshrined in the Constitution and the final word on the constitutionality of state and federal laws, self-policing seems a particularly inapt way of assuring fair, neutral decision-making.

The sitting Chief Justice has defended the current approach by arguing that the Justices “consult the code for lower-court judges in assessing their own ethical obligations.”  They may “consult” but are not bound to follow.” Extraordinary.

The “both sides-ing” of the ethical issues involving speeches and political leanings by Justices cannot be allowed to obscure the fundamental obligation of judicial neutrality embodied in the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct [bolding is mine] set out below, along with the corresponding Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

ABA: CANON 1
A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

Judges’ Code: Canon 1

A Judge Should Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary.

 ABA: CANON 2 
A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.

Judges’ Code: Canon 2

A Judge Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in all Activities

ABA: CANON 3
A judge shall conduct the judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.

Judges’ Code: Canon 3

A Judge Should Perform the Duties of the Office Fairly, Impartially and Diligently

ABA: CANON 4
A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.

Judges’ Code: Canon 4

A Judge May Engage in Extrajudicial Activities that are Consistent with the Obligations of Judicial Office

 Judges’ Code: Canon 5

A Judge Should Refrain from Political Activity

The Judges’ Code is accompanied by a lengthy commentary on each section that only a lawyer can appreciate. Suffice to say that, in substance, the ABA Code and the Judges’ Code are essentially the same.

A commission appointed by President Biden to consider some of these issues stated in its report that “this voluntary system may not be the best approach to conflicts of interest that may affect the public’s perception of the court. “It is not obvious why the court is best served by an exemption from what so many consider best practice,” the report said. Indeed, a masterpiece of understatement.

Ironically, I suggest without a hint of irony, Justice Alito who often speaks at the Federalist Society’s meetings, had this to say at its November 2020 convention:

Judges dedicated to the rule of law have a clear duty. They cannot compromise principle or rationalize any departure from what they are obligated to do. And I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not do that in the years ahead. When we look back at the history of the American judiciary, we can see many judges who were fearless in their dedication to principle …. [https://bit.ly/3uEG2iE]

Many, but not all, it seems. Furthering the irony, Justice Alito’s very next words were, “and one who is especially dear to the Federalist Society springs immediately to mind I’m referring to Justice Antonin Scalia.” To quote the infamous Mr. Barry, I am not making this up. I will have much more to say about J. Alito’s extraordinary speech in a future post.

Most of the comments I have read about this issue constitute the highest [lowest?] form of tiptoeing by the graveyard. The stench of politics wafting from the High Court is gag-inducing. The pussyfooting by Democrats only makes it worse: “Justice Thomas’s participation in cases involving the 2020 election and the January 6th attack is exceedingly difficult to reconcile with federal ethics requirements.” https://wapo.st/3DqCQLB “Exceedingly difficult?” Really?

This is the same Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni, whose text messages to Mark Meadows, Chief of Staff to Trump urged Meadows and Trump to “stand firm” in pursuing legal strategies to overturn the election she claimed was stolen from Trump. In keeping with the circus-of-the-obvious that Washington has become, Democrats in Congress were shocked, yes, I say, shocked, and even “outraged” to learn of these messages. https://wapo.st/35r6N1C

Now some experts see problems with this sordid example of non-self-regulation:

Legal ethicists, even some who in the past have been sympathetic to the notion that justices’ spouses are entitled to their own political activities, said the revelations presented a serious problem for the Supreme Court.

“The public is going to be deeply concerned whether a justice can be fair when his wife has been such an active participant in questioning the outcome of the election,” said Steven Lubet, a professor and judicial ethics expert at Northwestern University law school.

Louis J. Virelli III, a Stetson University law professor who wrote “Disqualifying the High Court: Supreme Court Recusal and the Constitution,” said that “this situation is problematic” considering the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of Trump’s supporters. “It is so stark.” [https://wapo.st/3LtMno4]

Not surprisingly to anyone with a functioning mind, “Congressional Republicans came to Clarence Thomas’s defense.” Names: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, leading House shrieker, Jim Jordan. Icons of ethical conduct, every one. Some of them, McConnell in particular, it is said, oppose Thomas even recusing from January 6 cases. We should not be surprised since the last Republican known to believe in democratic principles appears to have died some time ago.

Experts in judicial ethics seem to be falling all over themselves to avoid speaking the dreaded words: RESIGN. The lawyerly hair splitting is disturbing because this is not a problem curable by disclosure or recusal in this case or that. The High Court may well end up deciding multiple cases arising from the January 6 attack and the conspiracies that led up to and followed it.

Even if recusal, the step short of resignation, were adopted by Thomas for those cases, the Court would be deprived of one voice and one vote in an already small group of decision-makers. The burdens on other Justice would increase and the possibility of tie-votes on crucial constitutional issues would increase. Ginni Thomas’s own words proof how tone-deaf and substance-indifferent she and her husband are: ““Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work.” Sure.

Just imagine:

“How was your day, honey?”

“Fine. Just the usual run-of-the-mill insurrection cases, you know, the attempts to overthrow the government. But you know we can’t talk about that, right?”

“Of course not, so let me tell you what I did today….”

More rules and self-enforcing principles of recusal do not serve the interests of the United States, which should be the only focus here. The interests and feelings of Justice Thomas and his wife are irrelevant. They brought this problem on themselves, and the country should not bear further the costs of their conduct. Thomas has already shown himself to be indifferent, at best, to the high ethically duty that should be the watchword of every Justice on the Court. Resignation is the only appropriate remedy, and it should be forthwith, before more interference with the Court’s business and more impairment of its already wounded reputation occur.

1 thought on “The Stench from the Bench

  1. jamesbj@bellsouth.net

    I think this should be a guest op-ed in the New York Times. Our very own Abe Fortas resigned from the court following an infraction which in my opinion is far less than what the Thomases are doing.

    James B. Jalenak

    5260 Sycamore Grove Lane

    Memphis, Tennessee 38120

    jamesbj@bellsouth.net

    P Please consider the environment

    before printing this e-mail.

    Like

    Reply

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