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03/26/2004 Archived Entry: "Judicial conflicts of interest"

NPR HAD A FASCINATING REPORT THIS MORNING on conflicts of interest among U.S. Supreme Court justices. You know the current flap over Antonin Scalia being buddies with Dick Cheney. Well, NRP's basically saying all these folks have been snuggly in bed with each other since the days of George Washington, and only in the last few decades has anybody expected justices to recuse themselves when their buddyhood gets too obvious.

No big surprise, really. But some interesting court history and trivia.

Yet it's also a perfect, typical example of swatting at gnats while failing to see the elephant that's pooping all over your living room carpet. Conflict of interest? How about this one? In any case in which the federal government is a party, every justice ought to recuse him (or her) self because -- DUH! -- they all receive their paychecks from the fedgov and work in a big fancy building provided by the fedgov. And they're chosen, vetted, and appointed by the fedgov. Whose side are they likely to be on?

Tax cases are where the conflict is worst. If you got into conflict with AT&T and your only choice was to go to court in which the judges, the building, the bailiffs, and the per diems of the jurors were all paid by AT&T, why would you even imagine you could get an impartial trial? But we're supposed to pretend we can get a fair trial from people who are paid with the very funds that tax avoiders are accused of withholding. (And I'm not just talking about the special IRS courts, which are too weird to be true; but any court funded by tax money -- which is all of them.)

If you had to resolve a conflict with AT&T or IBM or even the United Way in a court entirely funded by your adversary and packed with your adversary's employees, you'd howl and screech. The media would beat its collective breast. Congress would hold hearings and pass laws. Human rights organizations would hold candlelight vigils for you. But we accept exactly this same sort of conflict of interest with government just because "we've always done it that way." So nobody even considers that the elephant might be there.

Man, how much elephant dung is going to have to pile up before people notice the odor?

Posted by Claire @ 12:15 PM CST

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