Category Archives: Professions

Ethics Quiz: The Improper Jury Instruction

At least a dozen Pennsylvania murder convictions may be reversed because Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes included this description of reasonable doubt to instruct her juries:

“Each one of you has someone in your life who’s absolutely precious to you. If you were told by your precious one’s physician that they had a life-threatening condition and that the only known protocol or the best protocol for that condition was an experimental surgery, you’re very likely going to ask for a second opinion. You may even ask for a third opinion. You’re probably going to research the condition, research the protocol. What’s the surgery about? How does it work? You’re going to do everything you can to get as much information as you can. You’re going to call everybody you know in medicine: What do you know? What have you heard? Tell me where to go. But at some point the question will be called. If you go forward, it’s not because you have moved beyond all doubt. There are no guarantees. If you go forward, it is because you have moved beyond all reasonable doubt.”

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh ordered a new trial for a man convicted following this instruction, and Hughes may have used it in 50 cases.

This is why I am making this an ethics quiz: I have no idea why the instruction is wrong, or confusing. I’ve read McHugh’s opinion, and I still don’t understand what the alleged problem is, unless this judge just doesn’t want to anyone convicted. (He’s an Obama appointment, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with anything, for Chief Justice Roberts tells us so). The decision is here, and this the judge’s reasoning: Continue reading

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Filed under Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Quizzes

Now THIS Is A Frivolous Lawsuit!

Sounds noble in theory, but it doesn’t always work when the one saying “no” is a judge.

Lawyers and the public mean different things when they call a lawsuit “frivolous.” The public and the news media mean that the suit is silly, desperate, based on a crazy theory or unlikely to succeed. Lawyers, however, know that suits that seem  silly, desperate, based on a crazy theory or unlikely to succeed sometimes win. Sometimes, they even change the law for the better. ABA Rule 3.1 explains,

Rule 3.1: Meritorious Claims & Contentions

A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law….

Comment:The filing of an action or defense or similar action taken for a client is not frivolous merely because the facts have not first been fully substantiated or because the lawyer expects to develop vital evidence only by discovery. What is required of lawyers, however, is that they inform themselves about the facts of their clients’ cases and the applicable law and determine that they can make good faith arguments in support of their clients’ positions. Such action is not frivolous even though the lawyer believes that the client’s position ultimately will not prevail. The action is frivolous, however, if the lawyer is unable either to make a good faith argument on the merits of the action taken or to support the action taken by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.

The guy currently  suing me for defamation, for example, hasn’t quite crossed the “frivolous” line, though he is arguing that what is clearly opinion is an assertion of fact, contrary to all existing jurisprudence. His appeal, however, while batty, does make an argument that I assume in in good faith, that a Supreme Court case supports his definition of libel. It doesn’t, but he has the right to make an argument in the hope that some judge or appellate panel will agree. Of course, he is also not a lawyer, so he can’t be held responsible for violating legal ethics.

This guy can be, however: Continue reading

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2018 Ethics Retrospective Poll #2 and #3: “Unethical Profession Of The Year” And “Incompetent Elected Official”

The effort to prompt some input into the 2018 Ethics Alarms Awards will obviously continue for another day or two, as my promise to “be posting these periodically during the day and evening” was foiled by intervening priorities yesterday.  There are two polls this time (here was the first, still open), and again, please don’t hesitate to expand on your votes.

Nominations for “Unethical Profession Of The Year”

Once, there was never any question about the “winner” of this  category: it was inevitably educators or, more often, journalists. One of the horrible consequences the 2016 Post Election Ethics Train Wreck, however, is that almost all the professions dived into the muck, sought headlines by making the kind of biased and irresponsible statements that society depends on professionals to eschew, and they have continued their self-debasement ever since. While journalists and educators—in this I include all academics as well as teachers and administrators, have still disgraced themselves beyond debate—they have real competition now. Each profession nominated will be linked to a representative Ethics Alarms post. The nominees are… Continue reading

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Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Incompetent Elected Officials, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership, Professions, Religion and Philosophy

Casting Ethics: Color-Blind vs Color Conscious in “All My Sons”

Director Gregory Mosher quit the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (scheduled to open in the Spring) when Miller’s estate, run by his daughter Rebecca Miller,  blocked him from casting a black actor  to play George Deever, one of the main characters in the classic.  Miller objected to the director’s choice of making the Deever family black when the play’s other central family, the Kellers, had already been cast as white. If the Deevers were black, it would introduce the concept of an interracial relationship in the 1940s.

“My concern was that to cast the Deevers as black puts a burden on the play to justify the relationship in the historical context,”  Miller said “I was worried that it would whitewash the racism that really was in existence in that period by creating this pretend-Valhalla-special family where no one would mention this.”

Nice attempt to put her position in a politically correct context, I have to admit. The objection really is that the play is a period piece, firmly and unavoidably set in the post-World War II era. It will have period costumes, sets and props, and the audience seeing the story unfold in the proper historical time period is essential to the play’s success. An inter-racial romance shatters that illusion, and unnecessarily so. The play is not about race, so race should not be injected into the plot by reckless casting. Miller had previously approved of a production in which both families were black.

Interestingly, she also was willing to approve the casting of a black actor if his sister were cast as white. You see, then the casting would be “color blind,” meaning that it was just a black actor playing a white character (without white make-up, which would be “white-face,” which would suggest blackface, and—oh, never mind…), and that his family wasn’t really “black.” Got that? Otherwise, it would be “color-conscious” casting, in which the race of the performer necessarily requires a different approach to the material. Continue reading

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Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Government & Politics, Literature, Professions, Race, U.S. Society

Ethics Observations On The Mattis Resignation

President Trump announced that he was ending the U.S. mission in Syria, and drawing down the troop level in Afghanistan. His Secretary of Defense,General Mattis, resigned in protest, and copied his letter of resignation to the world.

The news media, social media, and full time anti-Trump hysterics, among others, went bonkers.

  • What’s going on here? A President who has long held that U.S. domestic priorities are more important than “being the world’s policeman” followed through on his promise. As is his wont, he sprung the actual news without laying a foundation to cushion the blow. Nobody knows whether the decisions will work out or not, but the assumption is that because this President is the one making the decisions, they must be stupid, evil, or both. This, despite the fact that Barack Obama essentially did the same thing regarding Iraq, except that Iraq gave much more promise of stabilizing with continued U.S. presence. Syria is still in chaos, and nobody can confidently say when and if it will not be. As for Afghanistan, the U.S. has been expending lives and treasure there for a mind-blowing 17 years. What is the mission? Funny—I thought the original mission was to punish the country for sponsoring the 9/11 attacks. We could have declared the point made long, long ago. Is the President wrong to say “Enough is enough”?

I have no idea—and neither do you.

  • Having no idea, not having seen the data, not having been advised, and not being President of the United  States, I have little basis to challenge or deride the decision. But what’s really going on here is what has been going on since January, 2017. Any decision or action by this President is immediately assumed to be wrong. The analysis attached to it afterwards is superfluous. The position is that President Trump did it, it’s wrong because he’s a Nazi/idiot/ grifter /fool, and that’s all we need to know.

This, of course, makes it impossible, literally impossible, to get honest, trustworthy analysis about anything.

  • Anyone who criticizes Trump in public, even certifiable slime like Steve Bannon, James Comey, and Omarosa, suddenly is embraced by “the resistance ” and the news media using the formula that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This rewards unethical conduct, and “Mad Dog” appears to have fallen into the trap, to his eventual shame. As a lawyer, I know it is unethical to drop a client, my employer, and make any pubic statements whatsoever impugning his or her judgment or conduct. It is also unethical to do this in any professional relationship. Professionals know this: I presume at one time Mattis knew this. But having paid attention to how routine betrayals of this President have been cheered and praised, he apparently couldn’t resist temptation.

Now, as a lawyer, my duties are codified. That doesn’t mean that professionals who don’t have the same duties codified aren’t obligated to follow them. Continue reading

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Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Around the World, Government & Politics, History, Leadership, Professions, War and the Military

“Miracle On 34th Street”…An Ethics Companion: Introduction

As with most holiday movies, but perhaps more than most, the entire concept of digging into the ethics of the plot of “Miracle on 34th Street”  can be criticized as beside the point. The movie, at least the 1947 original, is a classic; it works dramatically and emotionally, it makes people feel good, and it has held up over time. That’s all a Christmas movie is supposed to do, and if it does it without really making sense or avoiding ethics potholes along the way, so what?

I sympathize with this view. However, our ethical standards and ethics alarms are affected by what we see, hear, like and respond to. If popular holiday movies inject bad ethics habits and rationalizations into our character, especially at a young age, that is something we should at least be aware of by the tenth or eleventh time we watch one of them.

One ethical aspect of “Miracle on 34th Street” that must be flagged at the outset is competence. The film is so effortlessly engrossing and convincing that it is easy to forget how easily it could have failed miserably. Actually, it is also easy to remind oneself: just watch any of the attempts to remake the film. There have been four of these, starring, as Kris Kringle, Thomas Mitchell, Ed Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, and Richard Attenborough. That’s a distinguished crew, to be sure. Mitchell was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. Wynn was nominated for an Academy Award (for “The Diary of Ann Frank”) and Attenborough won one, Best Supporting Actor Award in 1967 for “The Sand Pebbles.” Cabot wasn’t quite in their class, but he was a solid pro, and looked more like Santa Clause than Mitchell,  Wynn, or Richard Attenborough. None of them, however, were as convincing as Edmund Gwenn. He made many movies—all without a white beard— and had a distinguished career in films and on stage, but even audience members who knew his work had a hard time reminding themselves that he wasn’t Kris Kringle while they watched the movie. I still have a hard time. Continue reading

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Afternoon Ethics Warm-Up, 12/12/18: Silent Sam, Nasty Nancy, Tendentious TIME

Happy pre-Christmas panic days!

Once we’re under the two week mark, it’s all anxiety, regrets, list-making, fatigue, nostalgia, and tree needles under the nails. This is what Andy called “the most wonderful time of the year.

1. The theory: political correctness and historical airbrushing is a higher priority than education. The University of North Carolina \Board of Trustees’ approved of a proposal to build erect a $5 million history center that would, among other things, house “Silent Sam,” a statue dedicated to fallen UNC grads who fought for the Confederacy. The statue stood on campus until protesters tore it down in August. Now some faculty members and graduate assistants are threatening to go on a “grade strike,” withholding grades on papers and exams to force the school to abandon “Silent Sam” for all time. They are also trying to encourage students to support their protest.

Wrote the UNC administration in response:

“This afternoon it came to my attention that some instructors have used their roles in the classroom to ask students to take a stand on the strike,” Blouin said in the email, a copy of which Campus Reform obtained. “The University has received student and parent complaints. Such actions have been interpreted as coercion and an exploitation of the teacher-student relationship and in fact are a violation of students’ First Amendment rights as well as federal law….Our students are entitled to receive their grades in a timely manner. It is especially critical for the students preparing to graduate next Sunday, as well as the thousands of students whose scholarships, grants, loans, visa status, school transfers, job opportunities, and military commissions may be imperiled because lack of grades threaten[s] their eligibility,” the provost stated. “The proposed strike exposes the University and individuals who withhold grades to legal claims for the harm they cause to students…“Failure to meet [the faculty and GA’s] responsibilities to their students, including timely submission of final grades, will result in serious consequences.”

Firing, I hope.

2. Boy, that Trump is such an uncivil boor! House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, setting a civility example for us all while describing her meeting with the President on “the wall’: “It’s like a manhood thing for him, as if manhood could ever be associated with him….It goes to show you: you get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”

Nice.

Imagine the howls of indignation if the President described a foreign leader in such terms. Or the mass condemnation from both parties and the news media if any prior President had been insulted that way by a member of Congress.

3. “A person, a group, an idea, or an object that “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.” I would applaud TIME’s choice of journalists as the fading magazine’s “Person of the year” if it had the integrity to point out that this is an example of “the worse.” Indeed, journalists have deliberately warped and sabotaged public debate and discourse, withheld or buried information the public needs to know, divided the nation, defied their profession’s ethical standards, undermined their own institution and with it the health of American democracy, relentlessly worked to destabilize the Trump administration and undo the election, and have engaged in repeated incompetence, bias, dishonesty and conflicts of interest. The harm journalists have done is incalculable, and probably irreversible.

Quipped “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams: “Fake News is TIME’s “Person of the Year.”

Bingo. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Professions