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Supreme Court justices as after-dinner speakers

November 16, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Judges, even those on the Supreme Court, must abide by an official code of conduct.
Judges, even those on the Supreme Court, must abide by an official code of… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

I have a soft spot for the Federalist Society, the 30-year-old organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers and law students that is part debating society, part employment agency for would-be judges and government lawyers (but only if they’re interested in serving in Republican administrations or clerking for conservative judges).

The discussions at FedSoc meetings are stimulating, and there is usually at least one liberal on every panel -- just as the FedSoc’s liberal copycat, the American Constitution Society, finds room for conservatives on its panels. (Both organizations are nonprofit educational organizations that are forbidden from endorsing candidates, but it’s no mystery how their respective members voted in the last election.)

This week was the FedSoc’s big event, the annual Lawyers Convention. I didn’t attend, but I’ve been poring over accounts of the banquet speech by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.  The liberal group Alliance for Justice is upset that Alito accepted the gig because the code of conduct for U.S. judges, which is supposed to guide Supreme Court justices even though they aren’t technically bound by it, prohibits judges from being featured speakers at fund-raising events. But it’s not clear to me the FedSoc dinner falls into that category, pricey as it is.

I was more interested in the content of Alito’s speech, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing mixture of amusing anecdotes (Alito’s being assigned as a Yale law student to the Con Law class of the hippified Charles Reich, author of “The Greening of America”) and jabs at liberal critics of the Roberts court.

After an election in which Mitt Romney was mocked for insisting that “corporations are people too, my friend,” Alito reminded the audience that even before the Citizens United ruling, the court had held that corporations have 1st Amendment rights. If they didn’t, the New York Times (a media corporation) couldn’t have won the Pentagon Papers case. (You don’t have to be a conservative to agree with Alito on this point.)

Should we be bothered that Alito appeared at the FedSoc convention? I don’t think so, any more than I’m offended by the fact that the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a featured speaker at this year’s ACS convention. At that event, she teased the audience about the outcome of the pending decision on Obamacare, warning that “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don't know.”

So long as they don’t publicly prejudge cases likely to come before them, justices should be able to speak in public from time to time, and not just at law schools or on “Sesame Street” (which once hosted Justice Sonia Sotomayor).  More often than not, a justice will be showcased by a group that shares his or her judicial philosophy.

But I would hope that Alito would accept an invitation from the ACS  -- or “Sesame Street” -- if one came his way.

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