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Judges as Cheerleaders

March 12, 2004

The problem with federal rules that allow Supreme Court justices to police their own ethics is that nine different justices could set nine different standards. Americans now know something about how two -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia -- have balanced their oath to "impartially discharge and perform" their solemn duties with longtime friendships and ideological principles. Neither justice has made choices that sit well.

Ginsburg allowed the liberal NOW Legal Defense Fund to name in her honor a lecture series on women and the law. In January, Ginsburg gave the opening remarks for the fourth speaker in that series. Two weeks earlier, she had voted in a medical screening case, siding with the position that the defense fund backed in its friend-of-the-court brief. She shouldn't have it both ways, giving her good name to an advocacy organization and ruling on a case in which it is involved.

By now, of course, Scalia's hunting hobby has become fodder for late-night comedians. There was his January duck shoot as the guest of pal Dick Cheney, even though the vice president's closed-door sessions on federal energy policy with energy company executives four years ago are before the court. Then there was the 2001 pheasant hunt with the then-governor of Kansas and a former state Senate president while the court was debating a case testing the constitutionality of a Kansas law the two men supported.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 19, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheney meetings -- A March 12 editorial on Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia incorrectly reported that Vice President Dick Cheney held closed meetings with energy executives in 2000. The meetings occurred in 2001.

Like Ginsburg, Scalia has taken the podium before advocacy groups whose politics match his own. In May, he spoke to a Philadelphia "pro-family" group seeking to overturn the city's domestic partner ordinance.

The speeches -- his and hers -- are at least above board, in contrast to the private hunting trips. But because these groups repeatedly argue some of the hottest of hot-button issues before the court, the justices' appearances seem obviously contrary to the ethical precepts that bind all judges.

The high court trusts all justices to abide by federal guidelines that they refrain from behavior that could raise questions about their impartiality -- or recuse themselves when they can't. If they can't or won't do that, the chief justice needs to sit down with them for a chat.

Appointment to the high court doesn't require the justices to seal themselves in a bell jar. That would hardly serve the nation, because nearly every case calls on them to apply our 200-year-old Constitution to 21st century realities. But the justices' obligation to be fair and impartial should take precedence over after-dinner applause from their friends.

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