Topic: Professions & Institutions

Thank-You Note Ethics and Delusions of the Left

Demonstrating once again the wolf pack mentality and incipient insanity that infects public debate these days, ideological opponents and many in the media are impugning newly-minted Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s ethics because he wrote a thank-you note. Why is Alito’s use of a courtesy recommended by Emily Post causing, in the breathless words of more than one reporter, a “firestorm of controversy?” Here is the sinister missive in its entirety, with the damning elements footnoted:

Dear Dr. Dobson,(1)

This is just a short note to express my heartfelt thanks to you and the entire staff of Focus on the Family for your help and support(2)during the past few challenging months.

I would also greatly appreciate it if you would convey my appreciation to the good people from all parts of the country who wrote to tell me they were praying for me and for my family during this period.

As I said when I spoke at my formal vestiture at the White House last week, the prayers of so many people from around the country were a palpable and powerful force.(3)

As long as I serve on the Supreme Court, I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me.(4)

I hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet personally at some point in the future.(5)In the meantime, my entire family and I hope that you and the Focus on the Family staff know how much we appreciate all that you have done.

Sincerely Yours,
Samuel Alito



1. Dr. Dobson is James Dobson, the ultra-conservative leader of the equally conservative group, Focus on the Family. Is there an ethics rule, a Judicial Ethics Canon, a principle or ethical value that declares that ultra-conservatives should not receive thank-you notes from sitting judges?


Dobson is a doctrinaire and intolerant fanatic. Do fanatics forfeit the human right to be treated with courtesy and respect by others?


2. “… thanks… for your help and support… “This is grossly inappropriate,” said the Reverend Barry Lynn, another doctrinaire and intolerant fanatic, except that he’s fanatic about different policy positions. Lynn heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Alito sounds like a political candidate doing a victory lap and thanking his backers rather than being a fair and independent judge.” No, actually Alito sounds like someone thanking someone for his support. Lynn’s group and others like People for the American Way mounted a vicious, misleading and palpably unfair campaign against Alito’s confirmation, painting him as an insensitive right wing radical jurist hell-bent on returning America to the 19th Century. Had these groups been willing to let the Senate evaluate Alito on his judicial record, which is superb, groups like Dobson’s wouldn’t have had to mount letter-writing campaigns to steel the backbones of Senators to fight the disgraceful onslaught of accusations and innuendo Alito had to endure at the hands of Senators Schumer and Kennedy. Dobson and his group, among others, rode to Alito’s rescue when his nomination was unfairly attacked. It was completely appropriate for the Justice to say, “Thanks.”

3. the prayers of so many people from around the country were a palpable and powerful force.” Horrors! Alito implies that prayers actually have an effect, which must mean that…horrors! He must be a religious man, which according to Michael Moore and his pals means…horrors! Judge Alito is a dangerous, red state, Jesus-loving, book-burning moron, just as the folks at always said!

4.“I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge! The rabid left blogs are convinced…convinced!… that this is code for, “Don’t worry, you have my vote against Roe v. Wade in your pocket!” Also convinced, it would seem, is the CBS Evening News, which quoted this part of the letter and emphasized that it was sent to a “leading opponent of abortion.” All conspiracy theorists seem to willfully or stupidly ignore the fact that this is almost certainly a slightly personalized form letter. Alito, according to Supreme Court sources, sent out scores of thank-you letters based on a single template, and describing a seat on the Court as a “trust” is so commonplace as to be a cliché. Other recipients of Alito’s thanks have had the taste and courtesy not to read his note on the radio as Dobson did, but for Alito-doubters to read the promise of a quid pro quo into such a standard and benign phrase is, to be blunt, nuts.

5. “I hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet personally at some point in the future.” Oooh, the ever vigilant blog herald of the uber-Left, the Daily Kos, is really excited about this part. “Alito seeks meeting with Dobson!!!” it screamed. There’s smoking gun proof of a mutual back-scratching deal if there ever was one, right?

Wrong. Of course wrong! I’ve put a line like that into nearly every thank-you note I’ve ever written, haven’t you? Christmas cards too. “Here’s hoping we can get together soon,” reads one. “I look forward to finally getting a chance to meet you personally,” reads another. This is standard thank-you note politeness: “thanks, I hope I can thank you in person some day.” No scandal, certainly not a serious attempt to set up a meeting, only a formality…just like the rest of the letter.

So this is what it is to be an American public servant in the 21st Century. Neglect sending a thank-you note, and you’re an ill-bred boor. Send one, and you’re accused of signaling an unholy and unethical alliance. Justice Alito did nothing wrong here. What he did was right, polite, and essentially trivial. Yet from CBS News to Andrew Sullivan to the sneering swarm of political blogs, Alito’s innocuous note to Dobson was treated with the gravity of documents linking him to the Taliban. Such lack of perspective, rationality, proportion, trust, fairness and respect simply boggles the mind: how did we come to this vile state of mind? Alito doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment; nobody deserves this kind of treatment, in which every act, large or small, insignificant or critical, is dissected with a prior bias that presumes wrong-doing and bad faith. It is unhealthy. It is destructive. It is paranoid.

And it is, above all, dumb. Proving that even venturing into the Great Thank-you Note Scandal of 2006 lowers the I.Q., most Alito critics actually cited the fact that Dobson trumpeted his receipt of the note to his radio listeners as evidence of impropriety. How could Dobson’s act possibly implicate Alito in anything? I just received a nice hand-written thank-you note from Fox’s Neil Cavuto thanking me for being on his show to talk about the lack of civility on American Idol. If I go around the neighborhood showing the note and claiming that it shows how close Neil and I are, what does that say about Cavuto? Nothing, that’s what…exactly what Dobson’s use of the Justice’s note to impress his followers says about the intentions of Alito regarding his future opinions.

This is an absurd incident, but its implications are serious. A democracy cannot function in an environment of hyper-critical scrutiny and widespread unwillingness to presume good intentions on the part of elected and appointed officials.

It has to stop.

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