Ethics Observations On The AG Sessions-Russian Ambassador Controversy

sessions-3

To bring you up to date—from the Times yesterday:

“…[N]ew questions were raised about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ties to the Russians. According to a former senior American official, he met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, twice in the past year. The details of the meetings were not clear, but the contact appeared to contradict testimony Mr. Sessions provided Congress during his confirmation hearing in January when he said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

“I have no idea what this allegation is about,” he said. “It is false.”

Sean Spicer, the Trump White House spokesman, said, “The only new piece of information that has come to light is that political appointees in the Obama administration have sought to create a false narrative to make an excuse for their own defeat in the election.” He added, “There continues to be no there, there.”

…On Wednesday, a Justice Department official confirmed that Mr. Sessions had two conversations with Ambassador Kislyak last year, when he was still a senator, despite testifying at his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing that he had no contact with the Russians. At that hearing, Mr. Sessions was asked what he would do if it turned out to be true that anyone affiliated with the Trump team had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign. He said he was “not aware of any of those activities.”

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” Mr. Sessions said at the time.

However, Justice officials acknowledged that Mr. Sessions had spoken with Mr. Kislyak twice: once, among a group of ambassadors who approached him at a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and, separately, in an office meeting on Sept. 8. The contacts were first reported by The Washington Post.

From today’s Times:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, facing a storm of criticism over newly disclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, recused himself on Thursday from any investigation into charges that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election…Many top Democrats demanded Mr. Sessions’s resignation, and a growing number of Republicans declared that he should not take part in any investigation into the case, given his own still largely unexplained role in it.

But Mr. Trump stoutly defended Mr. Sessions, one of his few early champions on Capitol Hill. “He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” he said in a statement, which accused Democrats of engaging in “a total witch hunt.”

…Mr. Sessions insisted there was nothing nefarious about his two meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, even though he did not disclose them to the Senate during his confirmation hearing and they occurred during the heat of the race between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Mr. Trump, whom Mr. Sessions was advising on national security….

In his account on Thursday of the more substantive meeting, which took place in his Senate office on Sept. 8, Mr. Sessions described Mr. Kislyak as one of a parade of envoys who seek out lawmakers like him to glean information about American policies and promote the agendas of their governments.

“Somehow, the subject of Ukraine came up,” Mr. Sessions said, recalling that the meeting grew testy after the ambassador defended Russia’s conduct toward its neighbor and heaped blame on everybody else. “I thought he was pretty much of an old-style, Soviet-type ambassador,” Mr. Sessions said, noting that he declined a lunch invitation from Mr. Kislyak.

Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself was one of his first public acts as attorney general. He said he made the decision after consulting with Justice Department officials, and he denied misleading Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, when he said in his confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russian officials about the Trump campaign.

“In retrospect,” Mr. Sessions told reporters, “I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.’ ”

Observations:

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Ethics Quote—But Not Necessarily ETHICAL Quote!—Of The Month: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

i-was-wrong

“On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them. Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.”

—- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, officially apologizing for making remarks sharply critical of Donald Trump last week, including suggesting (in jest) that if her were elected President, she might “move to New Zealand.”

Observations:

1. Supreme Court justices almost never apologize, and I only say “almost” because I can’t do enough research right now to safely say “never.” They don’t apologize because the don’t have to: they are, ethically, a law unto themselves, and accountable to nobody unless impeached and convicted. (Justice Samuel Chase, was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 12, 1804, on charges of arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials; it was a purely political attack. He was, correctly, acquitted by the U.S. Senate on March 1, 1805.)

2. An apology was appropriate, however. Justice Ginsberg proved herself smarter, better, more ethical and more principled than the embarrassing, crypto-facsist “these are not ordinary times” crowd, including the folks at Salon and other left-wing blogs, this guy, and too many of my dear friends on Facebook, whose expressed opinions really are beginning to make me wonder if they will solemnly send me to a Lobotomy Man when I oppose President Clinton’s declaration of open borders, ban on fossil fuels, race and gender quota in all hiring and admissions to (free) colleges, and confiscation of 50% of my property to help pay for national health care including late-term abortion on demand and tax-payer funded recreational drugs.

3. She apologized because any fool could see that her comments did undermine trust in the institution of the Supreme Court, and that her critics were right. Some of my more misguided colleague in the legal ethics field opined that it was silly to think that Justices don’t have political opinions and biases, just as it is silly to think journalists do not, so why shouldn’t she exercise her First Amendment rights? This  lame notion was decisively rebutted by a lawyer whose name I wish I could reveal, except that his comments were on a private list. He wrote in part… Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ginsberg, not giving a damn.

Justice Ginsberg, no longer giving a damn.

Add one more bit of evidence to the pro- side of the debate over whether there should be a limit to Supreme Court tenure. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83 and a cancer survivor, has now apparently entered the “What the hell: I’m going to say what I feel like saying” period of her life. How nice for her. The problem is that there are some things an ethical Justice should not and cannot say.

In an Associated Press interview published last week, Ginsberg opined that a Trump Presidency was too awful to contemplate, saying that she presumed Hillary Clinton will be the next president, and that she didn’t ” want to think about that possibility” of Trump being elected instead. Talking to The New York Times, she said, “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president. For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.”  Then, in a CNN interview, she got specific:

 “He is a faker…He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. … How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that.”
Law professor Daniel W. Drezner, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University,  minces no words over at the Washington Post, nor should he. Like me, he agrees with Madam Justice on the substance of her remarks about, yechh, Donald Trump. Nonetheless, he writes, Continue reading

Essay: On Loretta Lynch And Fighting Cynicism And Distrust Regarding The FBI Investigation Of Hillary Clinton

America_Falling_Apar

Warning:

This is long.

I think it’s important

In the wake of Attorney General Lynch’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing in meeting, however briefly and innocently, with Bill Clinton, some  reader comments here are redolent of the destructive distrust of government and leadership engendered by this administration and others, particularly Bill’s. Yet this attitude feeds on itself, and is to an extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. If leaders think that people expect corruption, they are less likely to shy away from it. Cynicism leads to acceptance. Of course, this is one explanation of why the tarmac meeting took place—pure arrogance and a belief that with the news media’s complicity, now virtually any degree of government dishonesty and corruption will be either effectively hidden from the public, or accepted by it.

This is untrue, still. Indeed, this episode is proof that it is untrue, though the news media did make (disgusting and ignorant) efforts to shrug off the clear appearance of impropriety represented by Lynch having a meeting with Clinton the Impeached under these circumstances. Why do I labor trying to write these essays explaining the legal and ethical context of such events if readers are so poisoned by bitterness and distrust that they can’t or won’t process them, and just default to “it doesn’t make any difference, all is shit, all is lost”?  If I believed that, I wouldn’t be spending time—work  time, uncompensated time—writing this stuff. I can earn peanuts directing professional theatrical productions: it makes people happy, gives actors work, and is a lot more fun, believe me.

Paranoia, suspicion, despair, and conspiratorial views of government, which are all these comments represent, are just forms of bias. Bias makes us stupid, and in this case, bias makes us dysfunctional as a people and fearful and miserable as individuals. Continue reading

Now, Whatever Else, We Know That Attorney General Loretta Lynch Is More Ethical Than Hillary Clinton

Lynch2

Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s response to the immediate criticism of her private, suspicion-generating meeting with Bill Clinton was the correct one and the only ethical response open to her now. Today she admitted that that her airport meeting with former President Bill Clinton while possible charges against Hillary Clinton were being explored by the FBI had undermined public trust in the investigation, and she also took remedial action. She did more than recuse herself from the matter. She announced that she would  accept whatever recommendations that career prosecutors and the F.B.I. director make about whether to bring charges against the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“I will be accepting their recommendations,”  Lynch said in an appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival. She said that “the case will be resolved by the same team that has been working on it from the beginning.”

This remarkable move will not remove the stain on the meeting, which already created the “appearance of impropriety” at the worst possible time in the worst possible matter. However, Lynch acted quickly, appropriately, honestly and decisively.  Incredibly, the episode may have actually resulted in a situation that will reduce public and political cynicism if Clinton is not indicted, except for those who will insist that the fix was in from the beginning, as indeed it might have been, given the general lack of accountability and propensity for cover-ups in the Obama administration.

As one delicious scenario, it is possible that Bill Clinton’s characteristic penchant for breaking the rules at will may have created a situation that leads to his wife having to face criminal charges. It is certainly true that the chances, still slim, that Hillary will have to face the music is greater now than it was two days ago. Continue reading

From The Appearance of Impropriety Files: Justice Scalia’s Hunting Trip

ScaliaCheney

A partyist, ignorant hack named Andrea Paysinger, who is banned from further commentary by the Ethics Alarms “too dumb and biased to contribute” rule, just wrote a comment to the Clinton-Lynch post making the typical ratioanalization-rotted argument that “all the brouhaha over this is ridiculous, childish on the part of all the RIGHT WING jerks who SAW NOTHING WRONG with JUSTICE SCALIA taking gifts and spending vacations PAID FOR by those who actually had cases coming up before SCOTUS AND NOT ONE FUCKING TIME DID HE RECUSE HIMSELF.”

I just love it when people accuse me of being a partisan hypocrite without bothering to check what I have written. As it happens, I wrote a great deal about Scalia’s infamous hunting trip, which I unequivocally condemned as creating the appearance of impropriety. (It was, however, factually less troubling than the Clinton-Lynch meeting, as Scalia and Cheney were never alone during the trip in question.) So for people like Andrea (though not Andrea herself, who won’t be able to get back on this site if she recruits an army of Myrmidons), I will hereby post the two Scalia essays, which currently reside only on the Ethics Scoreboard, now an archive of my ethics commentary prior to 2010.

Unfortunately, the site’s search function stopped working when I had to change platforms recently. If you want to check out the Scoreboard now, just use Google: type “Ethics Scoreboard” and the subject or topic. If there was commentary, you’ll find it.

To give due credit, Andrea did identify real hypocrisy on the Lynch issue. Many of the Democrats exposing themselves as corrupted by partisan bias by now trying to defend Lynch also furiously attacked Scalia’s appearance of impropriety. They—your idols, Andrea— have no integrity. I do.

Here was what I wrote about Scalia’s clear appearance of impropriety in 2004.

Good Judge Hunting: Antonin Scalia and the Cheney Case

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently went hunting with Vice President Cheney, even as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on whether the documents pertaining to Cheney’s meetings with energy company officials regarding future US energy policies must be made public. This has led to critics calling for Scalia’s recusal from the case, on the grounds that the social contact renders his objectivity in the matter suspect. Scalia, feisty as always, denies this, and maintains that he is fully capable of ruling objectively.

And I’m sure he is, but that’s beside the point. In the case of judicial independence, it is often appearances that count, and because this is an issue particularly charged with partisan passions, the Supreme Court must avoid any hint that cronyism or personal loyalties are playing a part in the outcome of the legal showdown. Scalia should remove himself from the case.

Justice Scalia has pointed out that personal friendships between the justices and Washington leaders are commonplace, and that mere friendships among professionals should not raise the specter of favoritism or bias. Indeed, had Scalia maintained exactly the same collegial relationship with Cheney, but avoided the hunting trip, there would be no issue. But the outing conjures images of male bonding and frank talk by the campfire (lobbying, perhaps?), and if Justice Scalia were to rule Cheney’s way (and Scalia’s past opinions would suggest that this is likely), the legitimacy of the ruling would be, in the eyes of many, tainted. But there is more.

According to the L.A. Times, Scalia was flown to the hunting reserve on the small jet that serves as Air Force Two. That could be interpreted as a gift to a judge from a pending litigant. The trip has value, and judges are not supposed to accept things of value under circumstances where it calls their objectivity into question. This alone would justify a recusal. And there’s a “strike three.”

The Times reports that the reserve where the duck hunting took place is owned by Wallace Carline, the head of Diamond Services Corp., an oil services firm that is on 41 acres of waterfront property in Amelia, La. The company provides oil dredging, pile driving, salvage work, fabrication, pipe-rolling capability and general oilfield construction. There is no indication that he has a direct stake in the case, but he is an energy executive. So we have a Supreme Court Justice ruling on whether materials should be released regarding the input of the energy industry into national energy policy in meetings held by the Vice-President, after he spends a hunting trip with the Vice-President, who has also provided charter jet transportation, at a hunting reserve where he is the guest of an energy executive.

Come on, Justice Scalia. Continue reading

If Anyone Starts Paying Attention To What Bernie Sanders Is Saying, He’s In Trouble

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, gestures as he speaks at the Californi Democrats State Convention in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, April 30, 2011. Sanders called on Democrats to work together to stop what he calls the GOP's attack on the middle class.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

So far, Bernie Sanders’ major function in the Democratic presidential nomination race is as a gauge of how badly Hillary Clinton is doing. The same function could be served by a wooden spoon or an Elmo doll, but Bernie will do: as Hillary’s machinations and lies about them sloooowly convince even Democrats that she should not be allowed near any office that includes a button labeled “Power,” he rises in the polls. So far, this had not required anyone actually thinking about Sanders himself, but the contents of a recent speech to a throng in Portland, Oregon should be cause for alarm. Sanders managed to announce his willingness to rig the Separation of Powers and eliminate judicial independence as well as his contempt for judicial ethics and his ignorance of how the Supreme Court works, all at once. All of this indicates that Sanders really isn’t qualified to be a U.S. Senator, much less President.

In his speech, to the sounds of cheers, Bernie shouted, “My nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court will in fact, have a litmus test and that test will be that they will have to tell the American people that their first order of business on the Supreme Court will be to overturn Citizens United.” Those cheers are interesting. My guess would be that not a single member of the audience, and quite possibly not even Bernie himself, has read the decision. Most people who turn red in the face and twitch when one mentions Citizens United do so because they think that it stands for the proposition that “corporations are people.”

It actually stands for the rather reasonable principle that the First Amendment protects the rights of people who band together for common purposes, and who wish to use such organizations to express their opinions regarding elections. The decision forbade the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation, and by extension to for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations. Among other things, the law that was struck down in the case allowed the Federal Government to ban books and films based on content. Continue reading

Dear Political Blogs: Be As Partisan As You Like, But Don’t Make Your Readers Stupid

It's a coincidence that Monsanto had the better legal argument each time, yes. Is that what you mean?

It’s a coincidence that Monsanto had the better legal argument each time, yes. Is that what you mean?

It pains me greatly when a Facebook friend (and real friend too) posts something from a right-wing or left-wing website that is ignorant and misleading, as if she has something enlightening to share. Then I am forced to point out that 1) the post was written by someone pretending to have knowledge he did not; 2) those agreeing with him and assuming he had a valid point are hanging out with like-minded partisans who reinforce each others’ happy misconceptions, and 3) that the lawyers who cheer on conclusions that can only be explained by the fact that the concluder can’t spell law, much less under stand it. This typically loses two to ten names off my Facebook friends list. Well, too bad. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The case I have in mind: a site called “Forward Progressive: Forward Thinking for Progressive Action”—hmmm, I think it is a progressive site!—attacked Clarence Thomas for his participation in the recent SCOTUS decision in Bowman v. Monsanto. The Court ruled for Monsanto in a patent case against farmers in a matter involving the reproduction of products whose patents have expired. To Dyssa Fuchs, the writer for Forward Progressive in this case, Thomas had a clear conflict of interest and should have recused himself.

She cites the judicial code, she cites the U.S. statutes, she–of course—cites her belief that Monsanto is evil, and of course, like all good progressives, she hates Thomas, who has the effrontery to be both a hard-core conservative and black. The fact is, however, that she has no idea what she is talking about. Thomas had no conflict of interest in this case, nor does he have an “appearance of impropriety” problem because someone determined to prove that he is corrupt doesn’t understand what improprieties or judicial conflicts are, or for that matter, what lawyers do. Continue reading

Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck Update: Unethical Prosecutors Edition

McCulloch: Mission Impossible

McCulloch: Mission Impossible

  • CNN’s Unethical Experts. Where does CNN find these people? Carol Costello interviewed two former prosecutors regarding the beginning of grand jury deliberations in Ferguson, both female; one white and blonde, one African American. (As soon as I retrieve the names of these disgraceful representatives of the legal profession, I’ll add them to the post.) The African American prosecutor made her position clear: since St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has the authority to charge Officer Darren Williams without resorting to a grand jury, that’s what he should do. She termed his resort to a citizen panel to review the evidence a “punt.” Note that McCulloch’s critics have no idea what evidence is in his hands, so criticizing his decisions regarding it is by any measure irresponsible, unprofessional and unfair. She also  suggested that McCulloch was biased against African Americans because his father, a police officer, had been shot and killed by a black man. She presented no other evidence of racial bias. Then Costello went to the blonde ex-prosecutor, who a) agreed that using the grand jury was a “punt”—again without her personal knowledge of the evidence being considered; b) opined that the evidence was probably a mess, and was not clear enough or sufficient to conflict the officer of anything, so c) what should be done is appoint a special prosecutor as in the Trayvon Martin case. She noted that the Martin special prosecutor, Angela Corey, brought an indictment without using a grand jury, and that while the case may not have had enough evidence to sustain a conviction...“at least it calmed things down.”   

Continue reading