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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Scalia’s latest: Unethical or merely appalling?

We’ve all seen it before:
  • Justice Antonin Scalia makes comments that are appalling in their racial insensitivity.
  • Justice Antonin Scalia skates right up to the line of ethical impropriety.
But this time Scalia managed to do both at once, while discussing the Voting Rights Act in remarks at the University of California Washington Center this week.
Justice Antonin Scalia

Even as Scalia and his colleagues consider a challenge to a key provision of that law, Scalia chose this forum to elaborate on a claim he first raised during oral arguments, when he called the law a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”  This week, he echoed that claim, calling the law an “embedded” form of “racial preferment.”

To support his claim he declared that that it was unfair for his current home state, Virginia, to have to clear changes to its voting laws with the Justice Department in advance when other states did not.  He suggested that there could not possibly be a racial bias problem in Virginia since that state once elected a black governor and most other states haven’t.  He neglected to mention the state’s far more recent efforts to suppress the votes of the poor and people of color through restrictive voter I.D. laws.  (We have more on the need for the Voting Rights Act on our website here.)

But most disturbing was this.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Scalia said that:
merely holding minority status should not insulate one from majoritarian policy choices. “Child abusers” are a minority, for instance, but they should not receive special protection as a result, he said.
Presumably, Scalia thought this hypothetical would bolster his efforts to deny equal protection to a whole slew of Americans – such as women, the mentally ill, and the LGBT community.

There is one crucial difference between making such callous, insensitive remarks during oral argument and making such callous, insensitive remarks elsewhere while the case is pending: judicial ethics.

We have long argued that the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, which applies to all other federal judges, should apply to Supreme Court Justices as well.  It was the topic of this brief AFJ documentary:

But since it does not, Scalia is off the hook no matter what.

If Scalia’s remarks had been uttered by a judge on whom the code is binding, they may very well have been in violation of the code – and at the very least would come right up to the edge of what is permissible.  The code says:

A judge should not make public comment on the merits of a matter pending or impending in any court. [Canon 3A(6).]

Although the code makes an exception for “scholarly presentations made for purposes of legal education,” the commentary to this part of the code advises judges commenting on cases from their own court to “take particular care so that the comment does not denigrate public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality … .”

That’s because the code prohibits conduct that gives even the appearance of impropriety. [Canon 2A.] 

This is not the first time Justice Scalia’s behavior has raised questions about ethics.
  • At the same event this week, Justice Scalia indicated his likely vote on another pending case involving the powers of the Federal Communications Commission. 
  • In 2011, Justices Scalia and Thomas spoke at a fundraising event for the ultra-conservative Federalist Society.  While federal judges subject to the Code of Conduct can speak to any organization they want, the code bars them from speaking at fundraisers.  Justice Samuel Alito spoke at the same event last year. 
  • As we noted in our report on Supreme Court ethics, Justices Scalia and Thomas reportedly have each attended at least one invitation-only retreat hosted by Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, the second largest private corporation in the United States.  The purpose of the Koch retreats is overtly political.
Whether Scalia crossed the line this time or just came very, very close, with each passing year it becomes more urgent to make Scalia, Thomas, Alito and all the other Justices subject to the code of conduct.


none said...

This man should be removed from the bench. He is biased and does not seem to care who he insults. I think all Supreme Court Justices should be held accountable and subject to rules.

Lynda Halliger Otvos (Lynda M O) said...

He's not the only one who should be removed. Thomas has no business being a Justice with his background in sexual harassment and his current behavior on the Bench.