About 30 years ago, when Florida had a series of scandals involving lobbyists lavishing expensive gifts and costly entertainment on state legislators, a Tallahassee reporter posed a simple question: Why couldn’t lawmakers learn what she taught her teenaged daughters — that when a guy asks you out to dinner, it’s not your nutrition he’s interested in.
Discretion dictated lawmakers and lobbyists alike kept up the pretense that nobody was trying to influence votes by flying a committee chair to Aspen, giving some member a set of golf clubs, or taking a whole committee to dinner on the eve of a big vote.
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And members maintained that they’d return your phone call or mine just as fast as they’d respond to a lawyer for a giant utility company with a briefcase full of campaign-contribution checks to sprinkle among cooperative House and Senate members.
The House clerk’s office had a few little aphorisms on a chalkboard, including California Assembly Speaker and later state treasurer Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh’s famous dictum, “If you can’t eat their food and drink their booze, and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.” (It was widely believed that Clerk Allen Morris had diplomatically deleted a reference to “their women” from Unruh’s quote.)
It took a while, and a few embarrassments, but legislators eventually adopted a ban on lobbyist largesse.
Soon, for similar reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court will probably be shamed into adopting an ethics code. They won’t admit cause and effect, and they’ll make the rules as porous as possible without provoking gales of laughter, but the justices will have to do something.
Justice Sam Alito is the latest to offer legal-but-lame alibis for allowing a wealthy friend – hedge fund manager Paul Singer – to fly him to Alaska for a fishing vacation in 2008 and not reporting the trip as a gift. Alito made a preemptive strike with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal before ProPublica published a news report about the junket.
His Honor said there was an empty seat on the rich guy’s chartered jet, so what the heck. And his understanding of ethics rules meant he didn’t have to report the trip.
This news follows revelations of Justice Clarence Thomas jetting around at a billionaire pal’s expense and Justice Sonia Sotomayor not recusing herself from cases involving her book publisher, which had paid her millions.
Legal? Yep. How’s it look? Lousy.
At a time when public confidence in the court is low and diminishing, this is the last thing Washington needs. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said Congress will get to work on an ethics code for the court as soon as it reconvenes from whatever recess it’s in at the moment.
There could be a separation-of-powers problem with one branch imposing rules on another branch of government, but the threat of congressional action just might prompt Chief Justice John Roberts into telling his black-robed brethren to tone down the bacchanalia a bit.
Those of us unschooled in the ways of Washington might think folks earning $285,400 a year (plus book deals and speaking fees) could pay their own way on leisure weekends. And you’d think someone addressed as “Mr. Justice,” who works in a building modeled after a Roman temple, would want to keep the majesty of the law far above any hint of crass commercialism.
No one has suggested the votes of Alito, Thomas or Sotomayor can be bought with favor, flattery or friendship. But appearances matter, even when your business card has the word “Supreme” on it.
What the late Justice Potter Stewart once said of porn — “I know it when I see it” — applies to ethical conflicts, too. If you wonder whether you should do it, you shouldn’t.
But the saddest thing about all this is what Alito said in his op-ed: “The flight to Alaska was the only occasion when I have accepted transportation for a purely social event, and in doing so I followed what I understood to be standard practice.”
Yeah, that’s the problem, not just for judges but for Congress and top-level executives in city, state and federal government: Taking favors, including campaign money, from eager courtiers, with never a thought to why they want to give, has become “standard practice.”
And the higher they go in power, the more they become immune to how it looks.
Bill Cotterell is a retired state Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.