When a Justice’s Spouse Engages in Political Activity

When Mrs. Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, launched a new non-profit organization called Liberty Central earlier this spring, the announcement prompted a firestorm of media coverage. The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and numerous other news outlets ran stories discussing the possible ethical issues that may arise. The stories focused on two particular questions: to what extent may the spouses of Supreme Court justices engage in political activity, and when may Justice Thomas’s recusal be necessary if a donor to Liberty Central comes before the Court? Legal ethics experts quoted in the news stories offered brief answers on both counts.

In a short paper recently posted to SSRN, I have endeavored to provide a comprehensive answer to both of these questions. The first conclusion was straightforward: the relevant codes of judicial conduct are limited by their texts to judges – they have no power over spouses. Moreover, numerous advisory opinions confirm the right of judicial spouses to engage in politics. However, a judge must clearly separate himself from the political activity of his spouse.  Judicial recusal is governed by a federal statute. Going through the statute, and the advisory opinions and precedents concerning it, the paper identifies the relevant standard and proposes a framework for evaluating cases that may arise in this circumstance. I conclude that Mrs. Thomas can fully pursue her new organization’s mission without compromising Justice Thomas’s role on the bench.

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A Class of Ethical Considerations

As a guest speaker in class today, Professor Grenig arranged for an appearance by Mr. Howard Myers, who has appeared before Professor Grenig in labor disputes and now himself serves as a mediator.  Myers spent the class period talking about the role of a lawyer and ethical considerations that lawyers confront on a daily basis.  While I understand that in a future semester I will take a class about ethics, it was very interesting to get a big-picture overview of some different ethical issues and suggestions from Myers.

First, Myers suggested that each of us find an area of law that we fit into and enjoy. 

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Does the ABA Do Good? (Part I)

No. (This, however, is a polemic, and as such I am unfairly neglecting some of the fine work done by some ABA sections.) As a law student, I had an inchoate thought that the ABA could be a kind of strong mediating institution between the state and the individual that would make it beneficial to the public, not just a large lobbying organization protecting the business interests of lawyers. I had a woeful lack of knowledge of the quite sketchy history of the ABA. I thought the ABA could use its organizational heft to improve the quality of applicants to the profession, improve the ethical standards required of all lawyers, and advance the public profession of the law.

One issue of importance to the ABA during my formative years as a lawyer (and even now) was its role in the vetting process for federal court nominees. Having joined the legal profession in 1982, I was quite familiar with the burgeoning culture wars, including their cousin, the judicial appointment wars. I never thought much of the ABA’s efforts to control (or at least channel) judicial selection through its Committee on the Federal Judiciary, particularly after it couldn’t determine, based on its own “non-ideological” criteria, whether Robert Bork was highly qualified, qualified, or a hopeless disaster in the making. I don’t mind the ABA’s efforts to evaluate federal judicial nominees; what bothers me is that it claims to do so as an independent, neutral, unbiased expert.

But neither its history nor its tiresome efforts to wield an oddly refractive kind of political influence is what really bothers me. No, the ABA does harm because it can’t get it right on what should be its two most important areas of concern: legal ethics (this Part) and legal education (Part II). 

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