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Auction Block Justice mocks us all
Via Tatanya Tandanpolie last month at Slate:
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan turned down an offer of bagels and lox from a group of high school friends due to concerns that it could run afoul of the court's ethics rules for accepting gifts, The Forward reports.
In February 2021, friends who attended Hunter College High School with the justice in the 1970s wanted to send her a "care package" of a range of inexpensive items, including bagels, lox, babka and chocolates.
"I somewhat tongue-in-cheek said, 'I feel so badly for her, it must be so lonely and difficult, we should send her a care package,'" Ann Starer, a Hunter College High School alumni and originator of the idea, told The Forward.
However, when Kagan voiced concerns about her acceptance of the gift presenting an issue under the Supreme Court's rules, the group abandoned the plan.
"We thought it would be a sign of support to send her some lox, but she was too ethical to take the lox," Sarah Schulman, one of the former school friends, told the outlet.
Kagan appreciated the group's offer but it was "creating more stress for her than it was worth," Starer said.
She added that Kagan emailed her, reportedly writing: "I have to take these ethics and reporting considerations very seriously."
After the groundbreaking April report by ProPublica on the expensive gifts lavished on Justice Clarence Thomas by billionaire Harlan Crow - that the Justice never reported on financial disclosure forms - the loosey-goosey SCOTUS ethics rules came to light as a transparent sham.
Left to define their own ethical boundaries, Justice Thomas concealed millions in gifts from a billionaire and this May report describes Justice Kagan steering clear of a gift worth less than $200 from friends she attended high school with half a century ago.
Thomas’ billionaire benefactor only became a ‘friend’ after Thomas was seated on the court.
ProPublica’s out with a new report published late last night describing another gift of vacation travel provided to Justice Sam Alito by another billionaire, who first met him on that trip. Ever since that billionaire has appeared at several events with Alito, lauding him.
The law that governs when justices must recuse themselves from a case sets a high but subjective standard. It requires justices to withdraw from any case when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” But the court allows individual justices to interpret that requirement for themselves. Historically, they’ve almost never explained why they are or are not recusing themselves, and unlike lower court judges, their decisions cannot be appealed.
Alito articulated his own standard during his Senate confirmation process, writing that he believed in stepping away from cases when “any possible question might arise.”
Many ‘possible questions’ arise from this fresh report. The billionaire, Paul Singer, has had litigation before the SCOTUS at least three times since and Alito never recused himself. I’d raise an overriding question: when have any of the current SCOTUS judges recused themselves from any case?
Singer’s private jet travel could have been worth more than $100,000 each way. Another wealthy new ‘friend’ covered the cost of the luxury resort lodging worth $1,000 per day. That new best friend forever previously gifted the late Justice Scalia with free travel and lodging too.
After ProPublica contacted Alito in advance of this new report, Alito was given another gift by the Wall Street Journal, owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch: the publishing of an op-ed written by Alito, trying to stave off criticism of this fresh critique preemptively.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Alito wrote of his failure to recuse himself from Singer’s cases at the court: “It was and is my judgment that these facts would not cause a reasonable and unbiased person to doubt my ability to decide the matters in question impartially.”
“Reasonable and impartial” wealthy persons might agree. To Alito, presumably, the vast majority of American adults can be dismissed as unreasonable and biased against judges and politicians who favor extra rights for wealthy people, for an expensive price.
Tying together all the gifts to the three conservative justices is another billionaire, Leonard Leo, whose ever-presence at all these vacations raises more questions to reasonable and impartial people. Leo, through the Federalist Society, helped remake the federal court system, filling the SCOTUS and federal appellate courts with many conservative judges. Ex-President Trump and former Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell apparently got all their judicial nominees from Leo’s List. All claim a judicial philosophy called originalism, which is based on the idea that everything should be judged based on the original intents of the lawmakers who wrote the laws under consideration.
The Constitution’s founders’ intents were to create a government that favored wealthy white men. Modern day laws are often written by wealthy lobbyists, with edits by lawmaker staff members that help conceal its origins and correct any legalese errors.
And the reality is that several of the conservatives on federal courts occasionnally abandon ‘originalism’ cover stories to promote conservative beliefs that go well beyond the intents of any prior legal author. They may be fond of accusing less conservative judges of ‘judicial activism’ but quite a few conservative judges are using judicial activism to support their own beliefs, some of them rooted in religious upbringing instead of legal training and a neutral review of the law.
Over the past 50 years, numerous efforts have been made to hold government officials more accountable with open government sunshine laws that help prevent secretive and possibly illegal deals. Two city councilors can lunch together but they can’t discuss government business during these private moments.
Yet judges get to take super-expensive gifts that exceed the annual incomes of more than three quarters of American workers and we have to accept the word of them and their donors that nothing at all got directly discussed about any litigation? Have any of them denied dancing around campfires singing ‘Fuck the middle class losers?’
For an opinion writer like myself, it’s just as easy to claim that I’m biased against conservatives. The reality is I favor what appear to be common sense laws and regulations that are effective and fair to all. I’ve rejected and criticized bad laws and unfair laws before without regard to the political orientation of the authors.
Yesterday, it was also reported that the current president’s son - after 5 years of extensive investigation - would plead guilty to two misdemeanors for filing his taxes late. He owed more than $200,000 from 5 and 6 years ago. GOP lawmakers were outraged, some ironically claiming Hunter Biden benefited from White Privilege. The ex-president compared it to a mere traffic ticket, the result of a DOJ corrupted by the man who defeated him in the 2020 election.
It’s an easy charge to make when there’s no evidence to support that claim. For more than 7 years he and others have pushed numerous claims about Hunter Biden, claiming his laptop ‘proves’ this or that. They’ve never proven a thing and then the laptop disappeared. Currently, they’re pushing claims that President Biden took a bribe from someone about something they say has been caught on audio and video. When asked for evidence, now they claim they can find neither. It’s a standard feature of GOP politics now. Repeated baseless allegations will have to suffice. Yeah, right.
(Toon by the wicked funny Clay Jones. Reprinted with his permission)
Former federal prosecutors have indicated that the proposed sentence for Hunter Biden is harsher than most tax cheats face.
I’ll break from the ranks of his defenders. Not that I agree with Trump, et al about the litany of lies they’ve launched at Hunter. But the reality is there is definite Wealth Privilege in this country. Rip off the Treasury for $200,000+ and you do get a wrist slap. Shoplift some food or a carton of cigarettes, and there’s a good chance you’ll do some jail time.
It definitely doesn’t build or rebuild any faith in our justice system.
Nor does Chief Justice Roberts’ caution suggesting that any attempt by Congress to impose tighter ethics rules on the SCOTUS is likely to be unconstitutional. That ain’t originalism. The Constitution was pretty vague in creating the SCOTUS. They didn’t suggest how many justices would be on it or really define the scope and range of duties it would undertake. Those things were later decided by the Senate.
So of course there’s clear precedent for Congress to act on this. And they should, pronto.
The fact that the largely centrist Justice Kagan thinks a food box is too much to accept but three current and one dead conservatives think it’s okay not to disclose hundred thousand dollar gifts makes it obvious their voluntary ethics standards are a sad joke that raise big questions about their capacity to think logically at all.
I’d encourage every reader to write or email their Senators and insist on swift action to develop better, enforceable standards. I’m not naive and well understand that wealthy people will always have key advantages in every country in the world. But there has to be limits. If our major courts are granted free license to pander to the rich while being lavished with exorbitant gifts, our justice system could be dissolved and become irrelevant completely.