Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Conservatives finally wake up to Supreme Court conflicts of interest, but not their own

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Conflict of interest can be subtle or extremely obvious, but when justice is involved, even the slightest conflict of interest reduces faith in the justice system.

One of the recent storylines in the comic strip “Candorville” had a female judge who was presiding on a child-custody case concerning her daughter. Interestingly, the judge ruled against her own daughter. While admittedly this is fictional, in real life, you wouldn’t expect such a scenario to occur. The mother-daughter relationship would be considered a conflict of interest, and the case would be assigned to a different judge.

Simple, easy-to-follow conflicts of interest haven’t bothered conservatives when it comes to the Supreme Court. After all, the obvious conflicts of interest have all occurred on the conservative side, including but not limited to Bush v. Gore.

Until now.

Conservatives want Elena Kagan to not hear , known as “Obamacare.” Kagan worked for the Solicitor General’s office, though the Obama Administration points out that it started to separate her away from the legislation when she was being considered for a possible seat on the highest court.

Conservatives may have a case here of a conflict of interest. And liberals are smart enough to realize this may be true, and may result in Kagan not hearing the case before the Supreme Court.

The MSM coverage of this case has focused mostly on Kagan, and not as much on Clarence Thomas, who has yet another conflict of interest before the Supreme Court. Thomas’ wife has worked for several conservative groups tied to the case. Antonin Scalia and Thomas upped the ante by attending a dinner sponsored by the law firm arguing the case before the Supreme Court.

Thomas thinks so little of his conflict of interest that he has not put down his wife’s income on required forms. Money in a household certainly qualifies as a conflict of interest.

Thomas’ wife was soliciting resumes for the Bush team. Scalia’s sons, Eugene and John, worked for firms that worked with the Bush team. Eugene later worked as Solicitor of the Department of Labor under Bush in 2001. Both fell within the confines of conflict of interest; neither withdrew from the case. To no one’s surprise, they ruled on the side of their familial interests.

In 2004, Scalia had a conflict of interest with a long-time friendship of Dick Cheney as a suit seeking records from Cheney’s energy task force. Scalia’s arrogance came through in a memo at the time. “I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned,” he wrote. “If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court Justice can be bought so cheap, the Nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined.”

In terms of the Supreme Court, this last decade or so has been the worst stretch in terms of perception of justice thanks to these numerous conflicts of interest. In all but one case, conservatives were asked to recuse. In all but one case, the MSM didn’t spend much time on the story. Even in that one case, with an obvious conservative conflict of interest, the liberal example gets more attention.

What has made these conflicts of interest so problematic is that the Supreme Court was supposed to be the one place where politics didn’t enter into the equation. The recently retired John Paul Stevens proves an excellent example: appointed by a Republican (Gerald Ford), Stevens proved to be an independent thinker throughout his long stay on the Court. “Independent” doesn’t mix well with Scalia or Thomas.

No one thought Scalia or Thomas in those rulings were going to vote against the way they did. Conflicts of interest aren’t just about the vote, but how the vote is perceived. The brazenness by Scalia and Thomas adds to the wounds.

As much as we’d like to go back and fix the wrongs caused by conflicts of interest on the Supreme Court (especially Bush v. Gore), we can’t. If conservatives want to finally play this game, they need to acknowledge their hypocrisy of previous conflicts of interest. If nothing else, having to withdraw from cases would reduce the arrogance of Scalia and Thomas outside the courtroom. Then they will have to know that “Obamacare” could be decided by 6 Supreme Court justices, so that conservatives will finally understand the true meaning of conflict of interest.


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