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A Question of Integrity: San Francisco Premiere

On Monday evening, Alliance for Justice teamed with California Common Cause and CREDO Action for the screening of the new AFJ film “A Question of Integrity: Politics, Ethics, and the Supreme Court.” After the screening of the film, there was a panel discussion featuring experts on the issue, followed by a Q&A with the audience.

Lee Fang, the investigative researcher and blogger at ThinkProgress who discovered the participation of Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia at secret meetings, including big-ticket fundraisers held by conservative political funders, explained how he had been investigating the Tea Party in 2009 when he learned that the billionaire Koch brothers and various industry groups were funding Tea Party activism. Then, in October of 2010, Fang received an anonymous package about a Koch brothers policy summit being held in Southern California in early 2011. Digging deeper, Fang found that these events had been taking place regularly, and had advertised the presence of Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Alito. Fang actually confronted Justice Alito at one of these events, asking him whether he felt like his presence there was appropriate, to which Justice Alito responded that his presence there was "not important."

Richard Zitrin, Professor in Legal Ethics at the University of California-Hastings, said it is unconscionable that Supreme Court justices would be taking part in these kinds of activities, which would violate the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges that applies to all other federal judges. Zitrin was adamant that, because Supreme Court justices are afforded such respect by our legal system, it makes no sense to hold them to a lower standard than other federal judges when it comes to the appearance of impropriety.

Derek Cressman, the Western States Regional Director at Common Cause, has been on the trail of the Kochs – and many of their ethically questionable political practices – since the revelation of their secret retreats. He noted that Supreme Court justices should not have to sequester themselves, but they should refrain from participating in events where they appear to be cozying up to major political funders.

Judge Marilyn Patel, showed deference to her colleagues on the bench and did not address calls for justices to resign, but she explained that, for justice to be administered, there cannot be any appearance of judicial impropriety. She added that there is a strong argument that the Code of Conduct as it is currently written is actually applicable to Supreme Court justices, notwithstanding the justices’ current view that it is not binding. Moreover, she explained that, because Supreme Court justices are given lifetime tenure, we need to confirm justices who will uphold high ethical standards.

Zitrin suggested that, although he generally does not like litmus tests for determining judge qualifications, pledging adherence to the Code of Conduct, whether or not it is currently required of the justices, should be necessary for any nominated justice to be confirmed in the Senate.

Asked about the distinction between appearing at an event and at a fundraiser, Judge Patel cited guidance by the Administrative Council of Courts advising against participation by judges as keynote speakers at fundraisers for nonprofits. As far as whether it is hard to determine if an event is a fundraiser, she noted that she confirmed with Alliance for Justice that Monday's film screening and panel discussion was not a fundraiser before agreeing to participate. She also said that if a judge is asked to speak at a $250 per plate event, that event is obviously a fundraiser, and any judge who is unable to determine that would “really be out of touch.”

Judge Patel noted that some people oppose recusal by Supreme Court justices because they cannot be replaced by another judge when they abstain from hearing a case. She responds to that argument by pointing out that if the justices were to simply comply with the Code of Conduct, there would rarely be a need for them to recuse themselves.

The film premiered in Washington on November 1, and a New York premiere screening is planned for early December. Stay tuned for more information on future screenings!

For more on judicial ethics and to view the film, please visit www.aquestionofintegrity.org.