Untenable Judicial Ethics

When Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice Ronald Castille came to New York City’s Waldorf Astoria last December for the 111th annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Society, a booster club for the state, a law firm picked up the $1,900 tab. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, that is one of many gifts of dinners, event tickets, golf outings and plane rides the chief justice has gotten, some from people with cases decided by his court.

Because the chief justice reported the gifts, the favors were not illegal. By the court’s standard, they were not unethical either. The court says it has the power to establish rules of ethics for state lawyers and judges. All state judges (not dealing with minor cases) can accept any gifts if they disclose them.

Almost no other state follows this policy. Neither should Pennsylvania. It permits violations of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Judicial Conduct, by casting doubt on judges’ “capacity to act impartially.”

Chief Justice Castille provides an ideal test of his court’s gift rule. According to The Inquirer, his votes in cases show “no pattern of favoritism.” In his 17 years on the court, he stated, “no party has sought recusal on the basis of my financial disclosures.” Mr. Castille, a former district attorney for Philadelphia, was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

But even a judge whose conduct seems above reproach can’t avoid doubt about his impartiality when he accepts gifts from lawyers and others with cases before him. A basic goal of a sensible gift rule is to free a judge from having to worry about whether he or she is influenced, without realizing it. Another is to assure citizens who depend on the court’s fairness that the judge can’t be influenced by anything but the essentials of a case.

Sadly, the Pennsylvania court is following a bad example, that of the United States Supreme Court. The justices are not subject to the code of conduct for federal judges, which has broad prohibitions about gifts for judges and their families. There is a growing consensus — outside the court — that the justices should change how they handle recusals: requiring a justice to explain any decision to recuse or not, and having a group of justices review each recusal decision.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court needs to change its ethics rules. So does the nation’s. With tuning as needed, the United States Supreme Court should adopt and follow the same ethics rules as every other federal court.

This article was taken from:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/opinion/28sun3.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a211&pagewanted=print

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