Solving the Spouse Conflict Problem

When spouses are professionals whose jobs intersect, they will usually maintain that they never “talk shop” at home, and that for all intents and purposes, they are two unrelated workers, ships passing in the night. Nobody believes them, and nobody should.

In 2009, it was reported that the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, finding itself sued by the Environmental Protection Agency, hired an attorney from Kansas City. It was a Terry Satterlee,  one of the best environmental attorneys around, and also, coincidentally, the wife of Bill Rice, who leads the EPA’s Region 7, overseeing St. Louis. Rice recused himself from the lawsuit, and declared that there was no conflict of interest. Really? The attorney for the defendant is sleeping nightly with the head of the plaintiff organization. Are we sure he isn’t trying to persuade her to go easy? Are we sure she isn’t using her wifely wiles to persuade him to get the EPA to drop the suit? Of course, that might cost the couple money—maybe it’s in their interest to have the matter drag on for months. There’s no question about it, is there? This looks bad. There’s no specific rule or law to prevent it;  just the couple involved, who should reject the arrangement on appearance of impropriety grounds.

This year, in Dallas, seven criminal judges have hired the District Attorney’s wife as their political consultant as they seek re-election. The district attorney or someone under his supervision will appear before all these judges in criminal cases. They are giving his household their money. His wife is responsible for aiding their re-election. How does that look to you? How would it look if you were a defense attorney or a defendant?

Never mind, says the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.  “As long as there’s no tit for tat – the candidates getting something from [the D.A.] because they hired his wife – there isn’t a problem,” says a commissioner. “It shouldn’t be an issue unless something else is at play.” Quite correctly, Robert Wechsler, who writes the “City Ethics” blog, dispels this notion. Conflicts are about trust, he writes, and when the judge in a case where the District Attorney’s office on one side is having daily conversations with the D.A.’s wife, it makes the justice system look clubby and rigged. Side deals and back-scratching in Texas—imagine that!

The Dallas News asked the D.A.’s wife about the controversy, and she proclaimed it partisan political nonsense, noting that most people saw nothing wrong with lawyers contributing to judges’ campaign funds, a Texas practice that the Commission also doesn’t find unethical. Well, that practice is unethical too. Appearances matter, and when it comes to inspiring trust, they matter as much as reality. When spouses are involved in both sides of an adversary proceeding, nobody is going to believe they are ships passing in the night. If the rules don’t condemn cozy arrangements like in Dallas and Missouri, the spouses should. When no rule prohibits doing something unethical, ethical professionals still know what to do.

4 thoughts on “Solving the Spouse Conflict Problem

  1. Pingback: Solving the Spouse Conflict Problem « Ethics Alarms CA by about

  2. Pingback: Solving the Spouse Conflict Problem « Ethics Alarms Compare on me

  3. I’m seriously thinking about making “Conflicts of Interest” my career.

    People who rush out there to say “I don’t have a conflict of interest” are the first ones I point to and say, “Here’s an example of a Conflict of Interest”.

    Society has given the term “Conflict of Interest” a negative connotation. That practice of associating “COI” with negativity is wrong and incorrect.

    “Conflict of Interest” is a term of FACT. Do you have a Conflict or do you not? Overwhelmingly, people should answer YES

    If you do, can you still do your job and what assurances do we have that you can do your job without being influenced by your conflict?

    If you do, what appearances does your conflict send to the passerby. Can these appearances be explained and reasoned?

    In my experience, people don’t want to answer the more difficult subsequent questions, so they profusely refuse to admit that they have a conflict to begin with, which only means that now they are trying to hide their conflict of interest, which gives the appearance that they are influenced by their conflict of interest.

  4. It would be a good career, and much needed. The issues are really clear, you’d think: Loyalty (what does this do to it? Will it erode it?) Independent judgment (will I act differently, intentionally or not, because of this factor? Do I know/) and Trust (Will this make stakeholders trust me or the system I represent less than they should?).

    How hard is it to consider these things?

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