Donald Trump Candidacy Ethics Train Wreck Passenger List Update: Georgetown Law Prof. Paul Butler Scores A Perfect Rationalization #28

We're real sorry about this, but these are not ordinary times...

We’re really sorry about this, but these are not ordinary times…

The human ethics train wreck named Donald Trump is now in the process of exposing how thin the veneer of professionalism is for many alleged intellectuals, scholars and lawyers. On an e-mail list of most of the legal ethicists in the country, one of them posted this in reaction to Justice Ginsberg’s unethical and unjudicial shots at Donald Trump:

“I love RBG way too much to be critical of her in any way . Long may she live!”

This opne expression of willful denial, from not merely a lawyer, but an ethics specialist! It is the epitome of one of my father’s favorite quotes, “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” I responded to the list that it was the most depressing statement I had ever read from any of the list’s participants.

Paul Butler’s op-ed in the New York Times isn’t much better. The Georgetown Law Center professor defended Ginsberg’s indefensible comments by arguing that these times are special, and thus suspend the ethics principles that must govern judges if the judiciary is to engender any respect or trust at all. He writes:

“Normally Supreme Court justices should refrain from commenting on partisan politics. But these are not normal times. The question is whether a Supreme Court justice – in this case, the second woman on the court, a civil rights icon and pioneering feminist — has an obligation to remain silent when the country is at risk of being ruled by a man who has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a sexist and racist demagogue. The answer must be no.”

No, Professor, the answer must be “yes.”

Butler’s full embrace of Rationalization #28 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List is an embarrassment to him, Georgetown Law Center, and me, as I have a rapidly devaluing degree from that august institution. He teaches law, and lawyers must not, should not and cannot reason from rationalizations, especially rationalizations like #28, truly one of the most insidious of them all. From the description on the list:

28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”

An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.

The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.

Butler’s passionate declaration that Donald Trump’s existence should suspend basic ethical principles could just as fairly be applied to anyone else or anything else, as long as the “revolutionary” feels sufficiently strongly. There are no “normal times.” When has a Presidential candidate run for office after the FBI has declared her conduct in national security matters “extremely careless” and worthy of firing for cause had she been Secretary of State? Why don’t Ginsberg or Butler regard the unique threat to the rule of law and national security posed by such a candidate—note that Donald Trump has never intentionally breached any national agency security requirements—enough to demand a Supreme Court Justice’s warning about her?

I suspect one reason is, sadly, is that Ginsberg is a woman, and Butler is black, and both are Democrats, and thus they both have the kind of personal conflict of interest that the judicial and legal ethics rules exist in part to caution against. Of course, they both know this. They are resorting to reliable, flexible, dishonest old Rationalization #28 to give them leave to say what they should know is irresponsible and wrong, given their positions. If Trump is so dangerous that he suspends ethics principles, why not Obama, who ran for the White House with no useful experience whatsoever? Why not Bill Clinton, a misogynist who lied in court under oath? Why not Richard Nixon, whose record of perfidy and dirty politics was well known before he ran in 1968? A passionate partisan and critic could devise colorable arguments that most of the Presidential candidates throughout history, perhaps most of the candidates for any office, constitute “special” cases proving that these are not “normal times,” especially when a professional allows himself to descent into panic and fear-mongering, like Prof. Butler does in his op-ed.

Justice Ginsberg and lawyers aren’t the only ones using #28 to suspend important principles of ethics and professionalism. It is already clear that the mainstream news media has decided that Trump does not deserve even the flawed and biased coverage that it used to handicap Republican candidates in 2008 and 2012. (A black Presidential candidate and incumbent in the race meant that that those were not ordinary times, you see!) Now historians have jumped the same ethics shark.

The New York Times reports that renowned historian David McCullough and Ken Burns, the filmmaker and author, have assembled a group of “distinguished American historians” to speak out against about the candidacy of Donald J. Trump on Facebook page, Historians on Donald Trump.

Once, we are told, McCollough made a practice of not commenting on contemporary politics. “Very often, during question-and-answer sessions, people ask me some question about the president or other would-be candidates,” he said in an interview this week. “I’ve always said, ‘My specialty is dead politicians.’ In that way, I could sidestep the question without getting myself involved.”

That was correct and is correct. Using his established reputation for examining the lives of dead politicians to give unjustified influence to his assessment of live ones is an abuse of his position and profession.

“But this time around, I don’t feel that way any more,” says the historian.

Why not?

After all, these are not ordinary times.

10 thoughts on “Donald Trump Candidacy Ethics Train Wreck Passenger List Update: Georgetown Law Prof. Paul Butler Scores A Perfect Rationalization #28

  1. I think there’s a good argument to made for these being perfectly ordinary times. Maybe we baby-boomers have deluded ourselves into thinking that things will always get better. Maybe it’s from watching The Wonderful World of Disney as kids. We probably expected flying cars by now. We wouldn’t make the mistakes our elders had made. We wouldn’t be greedy. We’d be enlightened. There would be peace and love. The Republicans would be vanquished for good and the Democrats would rule unencumbered in perpetuity. There would be peace and love. This is the age of Aquarius. Etc.

    Well kids, we’re not special as a generation and these are terribly ordinary, pedestrian times. All the Kennedys are dead. We need to grow up and be adults and muddle through the best we can and not expect perfection and miracles. And do the right thing, as Wilford Brimley was so fond of saying. There’s no reason not to. We’re particularly not entitled to do the wrong thing because Utopia hasn’t arrive in our life times as we were promised. I think the notorious RGB needs to grow up and start acting like an adult rather than a spoiled, pampered, life-time lefty, progressive academic. History is not moving toward any sort of Hegelian, perfect resolution. Every generation repeats the mistakes of its predecessors. .

  2. I’m not sure what RBG was thinking. It was irresponsible and unethical for her to comment in this way. Plus, what did she hope to achieve? Does she think that there are a lot of people who plan to vote for Trump who would be swayed by her opinion?

    • Maybe she wants to pre-disqualify herself if things get to the point of high-stakes litigation in this election. More likely she is just old, crochety, and senile as well as hideous, and doesn’t give a damn what she says.

    • Bingo. What good does this do, to balance the harm? Who is the intended audience that will decide based on her comments that they won’t vote for Trump? This wounds her and the Court, and accomplishes nothing.

      Best comment I’ve seen online was to the effect that she was saying, “Trump is terrible because he shoots his mouth off and has no respect for the sanctity of our institutions, so watch me as I shoot my mouth off and demonstrate no respect for the sanctity of our institutions.”

      • She’s playing to the base. Can’t help herself. The left in the northeast is so cocksure they’re right about everything, she’s just talking out loud in the echo chamber. Kagan and Sotomayor wouldn’t say the same thing given the opportunity?

        • Great line re her wanting to move to New Zealand from WSJ article:

          “She’d feel right at home there,” quips the New York Sun’s Seth Lipsky. “It turns out that New Zealand doesn’t even have a constitution.” Instead it has a series of statutes called the Constitution Act of 1986. Also New Zealanders drive on the left.

          There are also many more sheep in New Zealand than humans. According to the Aussies, the national anthem of New Zealand is “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

          • But wait, there’s more:

            While we’re on the subject, Statistics New Zealand, a government agency, has “busted” the “myth” that the country has 20 sheep for every human inhabitant, a factoid that “adds weight to myriad sheep jokes,” as the Stats NZ website complains. In reality, “the sheep-to-person ratio has fallen and contrary to popular belief there are actually about six sheep per person, not 20.” The site is silent as to how Ginsburg’s immigration would affect the ratio.

  3. I had a momentary brain fart and thought Ginsburg had retired rather O’Conner, mitigating this ever so slightly. That she is a sitting justice…

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