Topic: Professionals & Institutions
Contagious Ethics on the Court
What is going on with the U. S. Supreme Court? First, Antonin Scalia refuses to see what everyone else does, and recuse himself from the case involving the confidentiality of Vice-President Cheney's energy meetings after hunting with the VP and getting free trips on Air Force Two. Now Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has lent her name and presence to a lecture series cosponsored by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group that often argues before the high court in support of women's rights that the justice embraces.
In January, Ginsburg gave opening remarks for the annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture Series on Women and the Law, just two weeks after she had cast her vote in a medical screening case in favor of the position argued by the same group in its friend-of-the-court brief.
Justices are not strictly prevented from speaking or supporting various causes, but the ethics rules caution them about outside activities that raise questions about their ability to fairly judge issues on their merits. Ginsberg is already on thin ice regarding her impartiality towards the group, which brings lawsuits in the lower courts and regularly files briefs in the Supreme Court. She was on its board for a time in the 1970s. Predictably, the NOW fund sees nothing wrong. From the New York Times:
"She is always very careful in her remarks," Kathy Rodgers, the Fund's president said. "I've never heard her address cases that are in front of the court. So I don't see any evidence of her violating her impartiality."
Rodgers is missing the point. As with Scalia, whether Ginsberg is actually able to be impartial is not the issue. The effect of her pro-active support of and involvement with an advocacy group is to cast legitimate doubt on her impartiality. This hurts the perceived integrity of our justice system. Similar objections were raised last year when Justice Scalia (who really does seem to have a blind spot on this) spoke to a group opposing same-sex civil unions while the Court was considering the Constitutionality of Texas's anti-sodomy law.
Perhaps Scalia's tone-deafness to the appearance of bias is contagious. Whatever the reason, Supreme Court Justices need to start practicing impartiality in public as well as on the bench.