Like most young children growing up, at some point I learned about government.  I learned about the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial.  I learned that the role of the judicial branch is to interpret the law and apply facts and the law to each case that comes before it.  Sometimes there comes a case before a judge where the judge or a direct relation or friend of that judge has a stake in the outcome.  To avoid favoritism a judge will normally disqualify themselves from a case where there is a conflict of interest and this is called recusal.  Sandra Day O’Connor routinely recused herself from cases involving telecommunication industries because she owned large amounts of stock in those firms.

I figure that it’s fairly routine to do this; Elana Kagan did so in a recent case involving workplace law and harassment due to her previous work as Solicitor General and the law in question on that case wasn’t even signed when she held that job.  So here’s a little scenario for you:  You’re a supreme court judge, and your spouse has accepted almost $700,000 from firms standing to gain quite a bit by the Citizens United ruling, do you recuse yourself from the case?  Not only did Clarence Thomas not recuse himself from that case, he had routinely checked “no” on ethics forms that require him to disclose if his spouse received noninvestment money.  Is he required by law to disclose this?  No, but what’s the point of having ethics forms if you lie on them?  Heck, if we have Supreme Court Judges lying on ethics forms, why bother even having a court?

Well, there’s a case on the horizon looming, pretty much everyone knows it’s coming:  Obamacare vs. Virginia and Florida will be in the supreme court before too long, possibly scheduled by the end of this year.  Virginia Thomas, Clarence’s wife, has done quite a bit of work the past decade for companies that have been outspoken against the new health care law, and there is already a movement going to demand Thomas’ recusal for when this case finally comes about.  Don’t hold your breath on that one.

The last few decades have seen Supreme Court justices acting more and more like they’re Teflon, like they can get away with anything and as long as they claim impartiality they’re fine.  Antonin Scalia has his own list:  going on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney weeks before a case involving Cheney was heard in the Supreme Court, speaking at a Tea Party rally organized by Michelle Bachmann, and most recently Scalia and Thomas were guests at an invitation-only gathering fully paid for by the Koch brothers.

How do we solve a problem like Scalia?  Once again, transparency.  The Supreme Court is not a get-away-with-whatever club where once you join you get to toss your code of ethics (if you ever had one) out the window.  The whole point of that office in the first place was to interpret the law with as much impartiality as is humanly possible and two members in particular are turning it into their own personal gain machine.  Second, we need to start limiting the terms of justices, or at the very least have some sort of re-confirmation every number of years.  If it’s ludicrously rare for anything more than a slap on the wrist to come down on Supreme Court justices in terms of punishment and they’re starting to show themselves as not being ethical enough to be above greed or partisanship we need to show them that they’re replaceable.

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Zarberg is a member of The Political Observers, a sub-group of our writers who are devoted to topics that are political in nature. Zarberg provides a liberal viewpoint in his articles.

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