Tainting The Supreme Court

Posted: May 04, 1987

While breaches of ethics and conflicts of interest have seemed endemic to the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court normally manages to steer clear of such tawdry behavior. Its members stay out of the public eye and conduct their deliberations behind closed doors. They go so far as to avoid giving speeches to partisans of one side of an issue that may come before the court. Whatever the justices' politics when they took the bench, whatever their written opinions, the court as institution has managed to retain the image of a neutral island in a partisan sea.

That's why it's so hard to absorb how Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could have contemplated giving a special private briefing at the Supreme Court to big donors to the Republican Party. True, she backed down after the Washington Post reported that the scheduled briefing appeared to violate the American Bar Association's nonbinding code of judicial conduct. Suddenly she concluded that the meeting would be "inappropriate."

Justice O'Connor's excuse was that she hadn't inquired just who the group was or what point of view it held. That's strange, since the name of the organization - a Republican political fund-raising group called GOPAC - seems to speak for itself. And it just happens to be chaired by a personal friend of Justice O'Connor's named Howard H. "Bo" Calloway, who reportedly asked her to speak to the group as a personal favor.

Mr. Calloway, by the way, seems to be big on asking for personal favors. He was asked to step down as campaign manager for former President Gerald R. Ford, after being accused of using his position as secretary of the Army to gain favorable treatment for his ski resort.

But Mr. Calloway's dim sense of ethics was no excuse for Justice O'Connor to darken hers. Surely she knew that making speeches for a political organization, one whose very purpose is to solicit money, violated judicial ethics. Surely "doing a favor for a friend" is paltry reason to taint the neutrality of an institution - the Supreme Court - whose stature in the nation rests on its isolation from partisan politics.

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