Conservative justices wink at their own conflicts of interest

-By Ronald Goldfarb

November 1, 2011- It is “do-as-I-say, not what-I-do” time at the U.S. Supreme Court. In a majority opinion in a 2009 case involving the conflict of interest of a state Supreme Court justice in West Virginia, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

Courts, in our system, elaborate principles of law in the course of resolving disputes. The power and the prerogative of a court to perform this function rest, in the end, upon the respect accorded to its judgments. The citizen’s respect for judgments depends in turn upon the issuing court’s absolute probity. Judicial integrity is, in consequence, a state interest of the highest order.

By that standard, the Supreme Court needs to review the actions of three of its own members. And if the courts won’t act, Congress should.

As Common Cause and Alliance for Justice have documented, the past activities of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia raise questions about the propriety of some of their extracurricular experiences. In September, the two groups, along with more than 100 law professors and ethicists, called upon Congress to require the nine justices of the high court to apply to themselves the existing ethical code of conduct rules covering all other federal judges, and to require them to publicly provide valid reasons rejecting recusal for alleged conflicts of interests. As the professors pointed out, the Supreme Court now has no policy on recusal. The justices simply decide for themselves if they have a conflict of interest.

At a time when all government officials are held in diminishing repute, one would think the Supreme Court would not need to be told that it, of all institutions, is not beyond the law and is subject to meticulous standards over which it alone should not be the exclusive decision-maker. A recent poll found 46 percent of the public approves of the Supreme Court; a favorable view higher than that enjoyed by Congress and the president but lower than at any time since 2001. Fatuous criticisms of the federal judiciary by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates exacerbate the image problem – important for an unelected body’s power of moral suasion, and compounded by real problems like this one.

Lawyers are reticent to question the judiciousness of judges trying their cases, for obvious tactical reasons. Most judges are careful about displaying their dispassionate distance from the matters before them. The system usually works, and the rules governing judicial conduct and conflicts of interests are there to assure uniform and fair standards. It is perverse that the highest court in the country is not covered by the same ethics rules governing all their judicial colleagues, all the more so when the justices themselves are the sole arbiters of these questions when they arise. A classic truth of judicial behavior is that no one should be a judge in his or her own case. Yet the court has no guiding comprehensive code of ethics. Its denials of challenges are not reviewable or sanctionable.

Don’t expect the justices to discipline themselves. When it comes to its own administrative behavior, the justices consider themselves their only judges. Claims for televising its public proceedings, for example, are denied because they do not want to be viewed publicly – to be recognized in the supermarket, one of them said. As the late great jurist Jerome Frank observed, the justices historically have protected their mystic aloofness. Even the more liberal, now retired, Justice John Paul Stevens recently dismissed the call for reform of recusal and conflict of interest rules as something that doesn’t concern him. It seems justices – even admirable ones – take their institutional arrogance with them when they leave the court. Stevens just doesn’t get it that “we know what’s right and wrong about ourselves” isn’t an acceptable attitude for Supreme Court justices.



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