Category Archives: Law & Law Enforcement

Cruel Activism: The Gay Rights Attack On Cynthia and Robert Gifford

The-Gifford-Barn-in-Schaghticoke-NY

It is said that close cases make bad law, and they often make bad ethics too. Legally, the culpability of Cynthia and Robert Gifford is not at all certain. Ethically, however, as right as they may be on the law, the conduct of their persecutors, same-sex couple Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, has been unnecessary, without compassion, vindictive and cruel.

The Giffords are active Christians who own Liberty Ridge Farm, located in Schaghticoke in upstate New York. They supplement the farm’s revenue with attractions designed for kids and families, including a pumpkin patch, a corn stalk maze and a rustic barn for parties and weddings. That rustic barn has three stories. The Giffords reside on the top floor, with the bottom floor designed for events, and the second floor consisting of rooms for activities relating to their preparation and management.

When Cynthia Gifford received a phone call from Melissa McCarthy inquiring about having her wedding at the farm, Cynthia invited her to visit and assess the venue.In the follow-up phone call, McCarthy revealed for the first time that the affair would be a same-sex wedding. Cynthia explained that the family’s faith held that marriages can only be a union of a man and a woman, so they did not make their farm available for ceremonies. She said, however, that the couple was welcome to hold the wedding reception there.

Apparently expecting this response, Jennifer and Melissa surreptitiously recorded the phone call. Armed with the recording, they contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union who immediately filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Giffords on their behalf.

The Giffords argue that this was not a matter of discrimination, but religious practice. They had hosted events for gay clients before, and employed gays. “The Giffords’ objection was to hosting and participating in the wedding ceremony itself and not to providing service in general to lesbians,” their lawyer said.

They lost. Bronx administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares rejected Giffords’ claim that the farm, which is also their home, is not a place of public accommodation and is therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of New York’s Human Rights Law. She ruled that Liberty Ridge qualifies as a public accommodation because it regularly collects fees for space, facilities, services and meals, so it cannot be considered “distinctly private.”  The fact that the Giffords reside at Gifford Barn does not render it private. The Giffords were ordered to pay $13,000 in fines and restitution.

The Giffords are appealing.

The Giffords, according to the judge, “unlawfully discriminated against complainants solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.” Another way of looking at it is that Jennifer and Melissa, now married, discriminated against the Giffords solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Why couldn’t they agree to respect the Giffords’ religious beliefs, and use the property for the wedding reception only, having the actual ceremony elsewhere? Would that really be such a hardship, or a compromise in principles? Indeed, if the nation and committed progressives really aspire to tolerance, diversity and mutual compassion and understanding, why wouldn’t that be the ethical, desirable, reasonable compromise?

I know the response to that question, of course. This was a matter of principle. This would send a message. Crushing the Giffords was necessary to show that all opposition to same sex marriage would eventually be crushed under the advance of history. Never mind that these were not anti-gay bigots, and that they have as much right to practice their faith as a lesbian couple has a right to wed. This is a zero sum game, apparently. Besides the law—probably–supports McCarthy and Erwin.

I think the actions of Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin violate the Second Niggardly Principle, which is a rule of kindness, compromise and common sense. It holds…

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

The couple’s legitimate objectives in this case were to get married and celebrate the marriage in an attractive venue. I don’t think setting out to punish a couple for belonging to a religion that doesn’t accept same sex marriage is a legitimate objective, nor is turning their lives upside down, nor forcing them into the maw of litigation to bend them to their will. Does the gay rights movement really feel that all those who have not yet accepted the justice and inevitability of same-sex marriage must be exposed and made to suffer? It seems that this is McCarthy and  Erwin believe, and what this case will come to stand for.

If so, I think the story of the Giffords will do more harm than good, hardening opposition, confirming suspicion, undermining trust and ultimately making acceptance for gay couples harder, however it turns out in the courts. Just because you have the law on your side doesn’t mean you have to use it when doing so involves unnecessary harm to others. Gays want compassion, kindness, tolerance and fairness. It would help if they showed a willingness to give as well as receive.

______________________
Pointer: Steven Mark Pilling

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Charity, Citizenship, Family, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Religion and Philosophy, Rights, Romance and Relationships, U.S. Society

Those Unethical Noncompete Clauses

noncompetesIt would not unseat the presumptive and early-declared winner of the 2014 Ethics Alarms Corporate Asshole  Of The Year Award (of which, by the way, there is new news: the consumer Comcast got fired for complaining about its lousy service is suing), but sandwich chain Jimmy John’s outrageous noncompete clause in its employee contracts puts it in an enviable position of strength to be runner-up Corporate Asshole, if that is its aspiration.

It must be. Non-compete clauses are roundly detested in the law, often illegal, and frequently struck down by courts as unconscionable. They are justified, if at all, when an employee has a management-level position in a high tech or sophisticated knowledge and innovation field, or when he or she is a prominent industry figure  who could instantly harm a company by leaving and launching direct competition. Increasingly, however, companies have been using tight job markets to foist noncompete provisions on lowly service employees too, as fine-print additions to contracts that the employee is unlikely to have thoroughly read or understand. The New York Times reported on a Massachusetts man who sprayed pesticides on lawns for a living, and who had to sign a two-year noncompete agreement to do it. A  standard textbook editor was required to sign an agreement banning him from working for another publisher for six-months if he left his position. A marketing firm pressured a newly-minted Boston University grad to sign a one-year noncompete pledge for an entry-level social media job, and a even summer interns at an electronics firm had to agree to a yearlong ban. Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Workplace

No “Stand Your Ground” For Domestic Abuse Victims? Law vs. Ethics Strikes Again!

Domestic violenceA hoary statutory destruction debate that hails from the Fifties centered on the simple prohibition, “No Vehicles in the Park.” The question is whether the reasonable and proper interpretation of such a prohibition should rest on the clear meaning of the words alone, or whether the underlying purpose and reasoning behind the rule or law must be taken into account. A tank is a vehicle: does the rule mean that a WW I tank can’t be placed in the park as a memorial? Is a baby stroller a vehicle (the dictionary says yes)? If we accept the literal approach—the school of jurisprudence championed by scholar L.A. Hart that is called legal positivism—we take legal interpretation out the realm of ethics and morality, and give judges only the power to apply laws as written, results be damned. The other approach, more popular with non-lawyers and many judges but not necessarily correct, is identified with Hart’s contemporary Lon Fuller, and called the natural law approach.

This conflict has arisen in intriguing fashion in a South Carolina dispute over the application of that state’s Stand Your Ground law in domestic abuse cases. In 2012, an abusive boyfriend, Eric Lee, dragged Whitlee Jones down a street by her hair. She got away, and Lee returned to the apartment they shared. A 911 call prompted by the hair-dragging spectacle brought a policeman to visit, and Lee put him at ease, saying that all was well.

It wasn’t. Jones, having retrieved her hair weave that didn’t survive the drag through downtown Charleston, returned to the apartment to pack her belongings and move out. As Jones began to leave the apartment, Lee blocked her way, and according to Jones, began to shake her. She pulled out a knife and stabbed him once, and once was enough. Lee died. Jones was arrested for murder. Continue reading

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Ethics Heroes: 28 Harvard Law Professors

Campus sex is returning to the '50's....the 1850s.

Campus sex is returning to the ’50’s….the 1850s.

In 2011, the Obama Administration threatened universities with a loss of funding if they did not adopt a new “preponderance of the evidence” standard in evaluating alleged student sexual assault and sexual harassment. This was, few doubt, a sop thrown to the combative feminists among the Democratic base, those who detect a culture-wide “war on women” and who seek to cast co-eds as imperiled naifs even as the proclaim themselves the equals of men. Within three years this really bad idea has metastasized into the Campus Sexual Assault Witch Hunt Ethics Train Wreck, which would be getting more media attention but for the fact that the world is falling apart in chunks. Among its weirder effects is the proliferation of new “yes means yes” regulations, effectively taking all spontaneity, romance and fun out of sex, all in the service of dubious and cynically employed campus rape statistics. Take this, for example:

“Consider the sexual consent policy of California’s Claremont McKenna College, shared almost verbatim with other schools such as Occidental College in Los Angeles. Paragraphs long, consisting of multiple sections and subsections, and embedded within an even wordier 44-page document on harassment and sexual misconduct, Claremont’s sexual consent rules resemble nothing so much as a multilawyer-drafted contract for the sale and delivery of widgets, complete with definitions, the obligations of “all” (as opposed to “both”) parties, and the preconditions for default. “Effective consent consists of an affirmative, conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed upon (and the conditions of) sexual activity,” the authorities declare awkwardly. The policy goes on to elaborate at great length upon each of the “essential elements of Consent”—“Informed and reciprocal,” “Freely and actively given,” “Mutually understandable,” “Not indefinite,” “Not unlimited.” “All parties must demonstrate a clear and mutual understanding of the nature and scope of the act to which they are consenting”—think: signing a mortgage—“and a willingness to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way,” declare Claremont’s sex bureaucrats.”

Cheers, then, are due to 28 Harvard Law professors, who authored and signed a letter protesting Harvard University’s capitulation to the Obama Administration’s blackmail and urging the University to reject the new standards:

Some highlights: Continue reading

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Filed under Ethics Heroes, Ethics Train Wrecks, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership

Three Republican Candidates: Gaffes, Disqualifications, Or Something Else?

shooting-yourself-in-the-footI felt badly about piling up three posts recently on unethical female Democrats running for office, and was inspired by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent to do some analysis of Republican candidates who, at least according to Sargent, deserve equivalent criticism to what has been leveled at Alison Lundergan Grimes for refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama. [She did it again last night in her debate with Sen. McConnell.]

Sometimes finding Republican candidates who deserve an Ethics Alarms slap is hard, unless they say something bat wacky like, say, Richard Mourdock. If a Democrat is flagged by The Daily Beast or the Post, I can be pretty sure there was something said or done that was objectively troubling, because the mainstream media will bury anything from a Democrat that is vaguely defensible. A Republican, however, might be accused of certified insanity for a statement that offends progressive cant. Fox and many of the right wing websites, meanwhile, will ignore any Republican whose pronouncements don’t rise to “I am the Lizard Queen!” level of derangement, and will find fault with Democratic candidates on dubious grounds. Here are the GOP candidates for today’s ethics audit: Joni Ernst (U.S. Senate in Iowa); Tom Cotton (U.S. Senate in Arkansas); and Greg Abbott  (Texas Governor race): Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions

“CSI” Ethics: Now THAT Was An Unethical Fictional Lawyer…

CSIWow. That was one unethical lawyer on CBS’s “CSI” last night, and I mean even before we found out that he had stolen a vile of an Ebola-like virus and used it to murder a doctor, almost setting off a viral epidemic in Las Vegas. (Gee, I wonder where the writers got the idea for that story? See, we don’t have to argue about politicians causing panic over Ebola: the entertainment media is way, way ahead of them.) Among the lawyer’s ethical transgressions:

1. He set out to use his law degree to gain access, through employment, to a company he blamed for allowing a deadly virus to wipe out his family in South America. Needless to say, this is a blatant conflict of interest, indeed, the worst one for a lawyer I have ever heard of in fact or fiction. He wanted to represent a corporate client so he could destroy it.  This is a clear breach of Model Rule 1.7:

(b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if:

(2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by… a personal interest of the lawyer.

Now, that conflict could be waived if the client were fully informed of the fact that its lawyer wanted to destroy it, and the client didn’t mind. That seems unlikely to me.

2. When it looked like his murder was going to set off a deadly epidemic, the lawyer decided to let CSI know that his client the biotech firm had lied about none of its supply of the virus being missing. He knew it was missing, because he had stolen it. The failure of a lawyer to remedy a client’s lie to police about a crime isn’t unethical in a criminal defense setting, but it is unethical if the lawyer would be aiding in another crime by doing so, which was the case here. Moreover, he is involved in the crime, unknown to his client. This would be a disqualifying conflict even if the one described above didn’t exist.

3, He also has an obligation under the ethics rules (Model Rule 1.4) to inform his client about matters relevant to the representation that the client needs to know, like “By the way, about that missing vial of deadly hemorrhagic virus you don’t want to tell the police about? I took it.”

4. THEN, he surreptitiously taped an employee and representative of the company who thought he was also representing her (if he wasn’t, he has an ethical obligation to make that clear—it’s called a “corporate Miranda warning.”) While it is legal in Nevada to secretly tape a conversation you are participating in, it is virtually never ethical for  a lawyer to do this with a client (That’s misrepresentation, violating Rule 8.4 in Nevada) , who is assured that her communications with her lawyer will be privileged, and held in strictest confidence under the attorney-client relationship.

5. Now, if the reason for the lawyer making the recording and handing it over to Ted Danson had been what CSI first assumed it was—that he was trying to save lives in imminent danger and deemed the revelation of a client confidence the only way to prevent it—he would have some support in the ethics rules, for there is an exception to the duty of confidentiality that can justify that.*  That wasn’t his motive, however, at least not all of it. He was also trying to make sure that the company—his client, which he was trying to destroy in revenge for his family’s deaths—was blamed for the virus that he had released. He had no justification for violating Rule 1.6, which says that a lawyer must keep client confidences.

6. Also, since he was representing both the employee he secretly taped and the company itself, he would have been obligated to report what she told him—evidence of a crime implicating the company–to his corporate client before reporting it to authorities, so the corporate client could report the lost vial itself, or at least have that option. If the attorney was going to exercise the “death or serious bodily injury” exception, he needed to tell the client that, too.

Yes, this was a very unethical lawyer.

Then there was that killing part…

* There was no reason to make the recording at all. This was a lame plot manipulation by “CSI.” Danson and his team used the biological residue on the recorder to prove that the same person who made the recording also stole the vial. But the lawyer could have just told the police about what his client admitted regarding the missing vial. No recording was necessary.

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Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Bioethics, Law & Law Enforcement, Popular Culture, Professions

So A Female Democrat Running To Be Governor Can Use A Former Domestic Abuser As A Spokeperson, But Feminists Would Revolt If A Pro Football Player Who Did The Same To His Spouse Was Allowed To Take The Field? Got it. Wait…No, I Really Don’t.

Go ahead, it's OK...he's a man, he probably deserves it.

Go ahead, it’s OK…he’s a man, he probably deserves it.

I realize that it seems like I am picking on women who are running for high office as Democrats: this is the third one within a week. It’s a coincidence, except that I have a growing suspicion that Democrats cynically sought out some female candidates for their gender and to hew to a theme rather than because they were especially well-qualified or even ready for prime time.

The current issue involves the Wisconsin governor’s race, where Mary Burke is opposing controversial, public union-battling GOP incumbent Scott Walker. Burke is running a 15-second pro-abortion ad (Walker is anti-abortion)  starring Erin Forrest,  the Jefferson County Democratic Party chairwoman. In 2013, Forrest — who then called Erin Sievert, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of domestic abuse, the first for battery and the second for disorderly conduct. In the criminal complaint, her husband said that she punched him in the eye and the groin, bit him on the shoulder, and ripped out one of his earrings. Prosecutors offered Forrest a deferred prosecution agreement in which she pleaded guilty to the charges in exchange for having them dropped later if she avoided further legal trouble and met other requirements. She did, and the prosecutors had the domestic violence charges dismissed as agreed.

Still, she agreed, by pleading guilty, that the charges were valid and described her conduct. This is far more than several of the NFL players currently losing millions of dollars and being pilloried in the media as violent lovers and vicious parents have done. Hmmm…..for which job is spousal violence more disqualifying? Throttling large athletes in armor who are paid to be clobbered and being a celebrated hero to sports fans, or being a women’s rights advocate, a role model for young women, and a representative of a candidate for Governor of Wisconsin? Continue reading

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