Service of Gray: Senate and the Supreme Court

March 21st, 2016

Categories: Conflict of Interest, Ethics, Politicians, Politics

Black, white, gray

I was far stricter when young than I am now [though close friends and family might not agree]. Then I saw life as black and white, wrong and right, with little room for compromise. Today I can live with gray fairly comfortably on many subjects.

That’s why I’m surprised at the intransigence of Republican senators and their refusal to give Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland the courtesy of a hearing. Not all of these women and men are young—haven’t they learned anything in their years on this planet? What happened to the greater good and being strong enough to admit a mistake and change your mind and give the President respect and the judge a chance?

Child tantrumI find this heels-dug-deeply-in-the-ground stance, a child’s tantrum attitude of “we won’t recognize someone” [even if we respect him] conflicts with an easy-peasy nonchalance when it comes to what Supreme Court judges are allowed to do.

In “Scalia Was No. 1 on Court in Paid Trips,” Eric Lipton wrote “Among the court’s members, he was the most frequent traveler, to spots around the globe, on trips paid for by private sponsors.”

According to Lipton in his New York Times article, “Legislation is pending in the House and the Senate that would require the Supreme Court to create a formal ethics system, beyond the Ethics in Government Act, similar to the one that governs actions of all other federal judges. That system is known as the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.”

US Supreme Court in 1930

US Supreme Court in 1930

Lipton continued: “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.”

Justice Scalia took 258 subsidized trips between 2004 and 2014, according to Lipton, who noted that he gave speeches, participated in moot court events and taught classes in Ireland, Hawaii and Switzerland to name a few places. When he died he was the guest of the owner of a company that had “recently had a matter before the Supreme Court.”

In addition, “Many of the justices are frequent expenses-paid travelers, a practice that some court scholars say is a minor matter, given that many of the trips involve public talks that help demystify the court. But others argue that the trips could potentially create the appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly when the organizations are known for their conservative or liberal views.”

So while the Republican Senators are avoiding the job they are paid to do—to select a Supreme Court Judge—do you think that at the least they should turn their attention to legislation that would require the court to create a formal ethics system?

Code of Conduct

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10 Responses to “Service of Gray: Senate and the Supreme Court”

  1. hb Said:

    Many years ago I worked in Italy issuing visas to travelers to the US one of whom was a charming and unassuming Genoese heart surgeon who lectured regularly at Harvard Medical School. Each time he needed a visitor’s visa, I made sure, out of my respect and admiration for the man that he receive it with a minimum of fuss and bother and no wait. This preferential treatment was clearly in keeping with Italian traditional hierarchical custom, but decidedly out of step with US democratic, egalitarian principals.

    Later, when I developed an infection, which was then routinely treated by uncomplicated invasive surgery and a hospital stay, not unreasonably I sought his advice as to who would be a good man to do the job. To my embarrassment, he spontaneously told me that he would be delighted to operate himself. I protested that he was a world famous heart surgeon with his own clinic. He shouldn’t be doing routine work. “Nonsense,” he said, “and don’t worry about the bill.” Hospitals are never fun, but the surgery was a total success. I was treated like royalty throughout my recovery and his fee was a fraction of what he usually charged. This is how such things happened in Italy in those days, and probably still do. Clearly, however, I now had accepted a “pay back” for having given the doctor “special” consideration when issuing him visas. This was “black,” not “grey” behavior according to American ethical principles.

    I believe that there was nothing “grey” about Justice Scalia by regularly accepting valuable gifts and other considerations from wealthy individuals whose business and other interests might potentially be involved in cases being appealed to the Supreme Court for review. This was just as “black” behavior according to American ethical principles as mine was.

    However, we Americans supposedly pride ourselves on the growing diversity of our racial and cultural heritage. David H. Fischer in his landmark 1989 cultural history “Albion’s Seed,” effectively demonstrates how cultural traits survive for generations after populations migrate. Perhaps the Justice was simply instinctively following the ethical practices observed by many generations of his Italian ancestors before him. If so, his behavior would have to be construed as “white.” The one thing it was not, though, was “grey.”

    On the other hand, the brew-ha-ha about Scalia’s successor is neither “black” or “white,” nor “grey.” It is politics working as they were intended (albeit aggravatingly slowly) by the founding fathers in the tripartite democracy, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, that they gave us. There is nothing efficient about a democracy; a dictator can obviously get things done far more quickly.

    What has gone wrong is that we are undergoing dramatic polarizing demographic and sociological change which has divided the country to the extent not seen since the civil war. There are too few reasonable men and women left among those who represent us willing to settle their differences through negotiation in the best interest of all of us. Problems like the appointment of Supreme Court Justices are left unresolved. It is a fearful situation.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    hb,

    First, you paid what you were charged for your operation and hospital stay. I got the impression that the Justices pay for no part of their junkets. And you knew that this person was honorable so when you saw his name you were safe to whisk him through. You didn’t need to perform the standard vetting of Giovanni Q. Public seeking a visa. And how did you know you’d ever need his services? You were young and healthy without a heart condition. Further, you expected him to refer you to someone. Your example is totally different–white, not black or gray.

    Fiddlesticks to Mr. Fischer’s theory. There are cultures where bribes are expected, but not here. Would you serve pork to a person you knew whose religion forbade it or roast beef to a Catholic on Good Friday just because pork is a staple of your heritage’s pantry or you always eat roast beef on Friday? Someone at the level of Supreme Court judge is sophisticated and worldly, well beyond what goes on in the old country.

    The polarization frightens me as well. Reminds me of what happens in a nasty divorce where the grownups battle and the children and other family members suffer. The public does not benefit by the childlike behavior of its elected officials.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    The Supreme Court squabble is one of many pathetic attempts by the GOP to downgrade the Obama presidency. Instead of acting like gentlemen, some US Senators are behaving like well heeled thugs.

    The war isn’t over. There are at least ten highly vulnerable senate seats they stand to lose in November. With the likelihood of a Democratic administration and possibility of loss of senate control, justice will be served.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Should your prediction come true I wonder how many seconds the newly elected senators will remember the folly of their colleagues’ ways. Hopefully they’ll act like grownups for a while.

    What’s as bad as the harm they cause the country by holding up the selection process that in turn might delay Supreme Court decisions that affect people’s lives is what they do to the prestige and honor of their positions. What kind of models are they to citizens of all ages—what if we all act like spoiled sports? And what about foreign observers: Nutty, immature behavior does not enhance our position in the world whether from Senators or presidential candidates. The US was for years a safe haven for investment—in real estate, business, the stock market. Don’t they see the damage they are doing?

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    This is no prediction, merely a possibility. Should there be a shift of power, you may rest assured a Democrat Senate will remember…..for a minimum of four years. Revenge is sweet!

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Let’s hope the Democrats, if this happens, act grownup, with an eye on their constituents, and focus on compromise/negotiation, so as to move things along and improve the public’s view of the Senate.

  7. Hank Goldman Said:

    We are surprised that the Senate doesn’t just interview him, Garland, and then say no. Why make yourself look like an idiot and say no to an interview! That’s just not doing the job that your constituents elected you to do. Very stupidly done by Congress.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Hank,

    I agree, but those who swore never to contemplate any nominee by President Obama are afraid of looking flip-floppy and weak by changing their minds. No excuse: An easy out would be to say that this man deserves a viewing and leave it at that. This would be the grownup way to handle things, though as so much of what we see today on the political stage is childish, there’s not much hope for an adult to stand up and persuade the others to follow.

  9. Edward Baecher Said:

    My grandchildren will probably ask me “Who or what were the Republicans?” If so, I’ll probably tell them they were a baseball team– way too much explaining.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Edward,

    I wish my grandparents and parents were around to tell me what they think of what’s going on–I suspect that they’d not be as shocked as we are and that this kind of strange behavior has happened before.

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