Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Judicial Ethics: Friendship and Philanthropy

Harlan Crow was a Dallas real estate magnate and a major contributor to conservative causes. He did many favors for his friend, Clarence Thomas, “helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly providing $500,000 for [Virginia] Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group.” The two friends spent time together at “gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.” Crow also “stepped in at Thomas’ urging” to finance the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the cannery that had employed the justice’s mother. Crow’s restoration “featured a museum about the culture and history of Pin Point that has become a pet project of Justice Thomas’s. . . . While the nonprofit Pin Point museum is not intended to honor Justice Thomas, people involved in the project said his role in the community’s history would inevitably be part of it, and he participated in a documentary film that is to accompany the exhibits.”

News “of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges. Although the Supreme Court is not bound by the code, justices have said they adhere to it. Legal ethicists differed on whether Justice Thomas’s dealings with Mr. Crow pose a problem under the code.”

The code says judges “should not personally participate” in raising money for charitable endeavors, out of concern that donors might feel pressured to give or entitled to favorable treatment from the judge. In addition, judges are not even supposed to know who donates to projects honoring them. . . . (T)he restriction on fund-raising is primarily meant to deter judges from using their position to pressure donors, as opposed to relying on ‘a rich friend’ like Mr. Crow, said Ronald D. Rotunda, who teaches legal ethics at Chapman University in California.” On the other side of the argument, Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford University law instructor who has called for stricter ethics rules for Supreme Court justices, said Justice Thomas “should not be directly involved in fund-raising activities, no matter how worthy they are or whether he’s being centrally honored by the museum.”

Ethical Analysis:

Ethical analysis is hardly an objective science. Nietzsche’s view that a philosopher’s philosophy is merely a reflection of his or her most dominant instinct expressed via cognition seems particularly relevant. In other words, out of the tussle of one’s instincts one remains and it can be expressed as one’s thought. For instance, the thought that first came to my mind in reading the Times article was that exempting U.S. Supreme Court justices from the judicial ethics code violates the ethical principle of fairness. This “first find” ethically-speaking seems to me to be the most indubitable conclusion of the case, ethically-speaking. However, my perception as well as “the salience” of the principle of fairness may have more to do with which of my instincts is most dominant in my psyche than any objective determination of ethical outcome.

The principle-instinct of fairness could be so dominant for me because it was conditioned as such through my early years. Specifically, I have a brother who is 1.5 years younger than me, and the closeness in age meant that the principle of fairness was seldom far removed when we were kids. For instance, awhile after we moved to a house my parents had had built, they made split our large, shared bedroom into two. The question not far from the surface all around was “is the space equal?”—as if square feet would matter to two boys (we eye-balled it and concluded the rooms were “fair enough”).

What instinct and supporting personal experience lies behind the lawyer’s thou shalt not claim that justices should not be involved in fundraising PERIOD? Is there an ethical principle in that asseveration? Considering that the lawyer at Stanford does not have a graduate degree in ethics (or law, for that matter), her declaration is highly likely based on a dominant instinct that has an urge to express itself in the garb of ethical language.

The lawyer at Chapman is more discerning, pointing to the purpose in the ethical prohibition on fundraising: the point is to keep justices from using their influence to get rich people to donate. In the case of Justice Thomas, it appears that Harlan Crow has wanted to make his donations. This, unlike had Thomas used his influence to secure the gifts, is not ethically problematic. The ethical problem would arise should a matter of concern to Crow come before Thomas’ court; the justice would be ethically obliged to recuse himself to obviate his personal conflict of interest. Announcing such a conflict would not be sufficient, as the underlying temptation to lean in favor of the benefactor would still exist; it would simply be apt to be better camouflaged by legalese. Of course, should a justice choose not to know the sources of beneficial donations, recusals to avoid such conflicts of interest would be less likely.

Therefore, one way to play it ethically is to allow the particular justice to decide how much he or she wants to avoid having to recuse based on knowing the identity of a benefactor. Hardly objective, this ethical strategy is one of several that are possible. It reflects empowering individual justices to determine the extent to which they want to subject themselves to the possibility of having to recuse to avoid a conflict-of-interest. The principle of boyhood fairness insists that the strategy be applicable for any federal judge, without exception. 

Last but not least, the field of judicial ethics would be better served if American law schools would follow their European counterparts in hiring legal scholars (i.e., holders of the doctorate in law, the J.S.D.). Also, a scholar of judicial ethics should have at least one degree in philosophy (ethical theory)—preferably a masters or a joint Ph.D./J.S.D.


Mike McIntire, “Friendship of Justice and Magnate Puts Focus on Ethics,” The New York Times, June 18, 2011.