Thursday, February 18, 2016

Scalia's "Free" Trip to an Exclusive Resort

One of the things that judges, but federal judges in particular, are supposed to avoid is any appearance of impropriety or bias.  Having had two law partners become federal judges, I have seen the vetting process first hand and witnessed the efforts of these two individuals to refrain from any appearance of political partisanship or acceptance of gifts from those who might ever appear before them in court.  Not so with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, each of whom did little to hide their political or religious prejudices.  I have long argued that both needed to be removed from the Supreme Court if they could not abide by the canons of judicial conduct.  Likewise, as we now discover, nor did Scalia avoid accepting expensive gifts. As it turns out, Scalia was enjoying a free junket at the Cibolo Creek Ranch resortat the time he suffered his fatal heart attack.  A piece in the Washington Post looks at this unseemly situation.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death over the weekend at a West Texas ranch raised questions about the nature of his travel, who paid for the trip and whether justices are subject to the same disclosure guidelines as other judges or federal officials.

The ranch is 30,000-acre getaway that is home to John B. Poindexter, according to the website of J.B. Poindexter & Co. It is a remote location that has reportedly attracted the likes of Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and Bruce Willis. 

All of which raises the question: Who pays for a Supreme Court justice to make this kind of trip?  Not Scalia, it turns out. Poindexter told The Washington Post that Scalia was not charged for his stay, something he described as a policy for all guests at the ranch.

“I did not pay for the Justice’s trip to Cibolo Creek Ranch,” Poindexter wrote in a brief email Tuesday. “He was an invited guest, along with a friend, just like 35 others.” . . . However, Poindexter said he did not pay for Scalia’s charter flight to Texas. . . . Poindexter, who would not identify Scalia’s friend . . . 

The nature of Poindexter’s relationship with Scalia remained unclear Tuesday, one of several lingering questions about his visit. It was not known whether Scalia had paid for his own ticket to fly to the ranch or if someone else picked up the tab, just as it was not immediately clear if Scalia had visited before.

It is also still not known who else was at the Texas ranch for the weekend, and unless that is revealed, there could be concerns about who could have tried to raise an issue around Scalia, said Stephen Gillers, who teaches legal and judicial ethics at the New York University School of Law.  

The 1978 Ethics in Government Act, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, states that all federal judges — up to and including the chief justice and the associate justices — are required to report certain gifts. It also requires them to identify and describe when someone who is not a relative gives them “transportation, lodging, food, or entertainment” worth a certain amount.

Scalia was among the court’s most active travelers. However, these disclosure forms offer scant details about who else attends events with the justices.

Judges must report reimbursements related to travel totaling $335 or more, according to filing instructions posted by the group Judicial Watch. And judges are not allowed to accept anything of value from a person who has a case in their court, the document notes.

The biggest ethical questions involve when justices should recuse themselves from cases, says Gillers.

“Is [the justice] the final arbiter of whether or not he has to recuse himself? And the answer is yes,” he said. “Every other federal judge below the Supreme Court, every other federal judge’s decision about whether or not he should be recused is potentially subject to the review of a higher judge or other judges on his court. But no one reviews the decision of a justice.”

Roberts issued his [2011] report at the end of a year in which more than 100 law professors nationwide asked Congress to give the Supreme Court an ethical code of conduct after it emerged that Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas had attended private political meetings sponsored by billionaire conservative donors David and Charles Koch. That same year, Kagan was called on to recuse herself from hearing challenges to health-care reform, and a watchdog group said Thomas had failed to report his wife’s income from a conservative think tank before he amended his financial forms.

In my view, Scalia was a very arrogant and bigoted man and one who cared little about the rights of others.  In many ways, he was the Donald Trump equivalent of the Supreme Court.  The Court is better without him.  

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