Monday, July 11, 2011
In Making Noise Over Kagan, Republicans Gloss Over More Serious Ethical Problems
On June 24, 49 Republican representatives sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), requesting an inquiry into Justice Elena Kagan’s ability to rule on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). In response, Rep. Smith sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding documents pertaining to Justice Kagan’s role in the PPACA while she served as Solicitor General.
The partisan purpose of this inquiry is exceedingly transparent: House Republicans are trying to force Justice Elena Kagan’s recusal from an expected Supreme Court hearing of the challenges to the health-care law. This is politics at its worst and shows that the radical right is prepared to use any means necessary to rig the outcome in the Supreme Court.
This is not the first attempt that has been made by Republicans to smear Justice Kagan and prevent her from hearing the much-awaited case. CNSNews, a right-wing news outfit, tried the same tactic last year when it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the Solicitor General’s Office demanding documents relating to Kagan’s participation in the health care legislation.
A review of the documents released by the Solicitor General in response to this request makes one thing clear: there is no evidence to suggest that Justice Kagan had any personal participation in the health-care case that would warrant her recusal. In fact, Justice Kagan has distinguished herself as being particularly interested in avoiding the appearance of impropriety, having already recused herself from over 20 cases in her first term on the bench.
House Republicans may have another motivation for these partisan inquiries directed at Kagan: they divert attention from more serious ethical problems that face the Supreme Court.
First, though Justice Kagan is not one of them, there actually are justices on the Court who have demonstrated a stubborn reluctance to recuse themselves, even when their recusal was clearly warranted. In 2004, Justice Scalia insisted on participating in Cheney v. United States, despite having a close personal relationship with the defendant More recently, reports have highlighted the involvement of Justice Thomas' wife in conservative groups that have an active interest in high-profile cases -- including the very same challenge to the health-care law anticipated by the House Republicans in their letter to Rep. Smith.
By focusing on Justice Kagan in particular, Republicans are clearly attempting to draw attention away from the justices who actually do deserve closer scrutiny. At the very least, Republicans hope to establish a "both sides do it" media narrative to make other challenges appear every bit as partisan as their own.
More important, however, these inquiries into Justice Kagan’s behavior gloss over the fundamental, non-partisan problem: Supreme Court justices are not subject to the same ethical rules as all other federal judges and are allowed to follow (or ignore) the ethical rules as they see fit. Both Justices Scalia and Thomas have shown that the self-policing requirement is inadequate. Without fundamental change to the ethical rules that pertain to Supreme Court Justices, these inquiries – whether warranted or not – will continue.