Why do journalists have more ethics than U.S. Supreme Court Justices?

When I beganUS Supreme Court my career as a newspaper  reporter in Connecticut, I was occasionally offered a junket or an opportunity to get something of value without earning it or paying for it.

Reputable news reporters  (as opposed to lifestyle and travel  reporters) didn’t accept junkets. To do so was widely considered to be unethical because it affected one’s objectivity or the appearance of one’s objectivity. We knew that a reader would not trust a reporter who, for example, accepted a free trip to the Bahamas from the mayor of the city that s/he was covering.

This is one reason that I find it so galling that members of the highest court in our land, the U.S. Supreme Court, have no compunction about accepting junkets. They do it all the time.

Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly last month at  a Texas hunting lodge, where he was staying for free as a guest of a Texas businessman.

According to USA Today,  the nine justices took more than 1,000 reported trips paid for by outside sources from 2004 to 2014.  Scalia was  the most traveled, with more than 23 trips on average a year, followed by Justice Stephen Breyer, with 17. Chief Justice John Roberts took the least, fewer than five per year.  Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at separate Federalist Society events in the Palm Springs area sponsored by Charles Koch,  who has poured millions into conservative causes. Scalia  attended events sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society more than 20 times over about a decade in resort towns that include Park City, Utah, and Napa, Calif. Breyer traveled to London, Luxembourg and Sun Valley in 2014 with groups picking up the tab. Whether or not this is an actual ethics violation, it doesn’t look good.  It undermines trust in the judiciary.

If poorly paid newspaper reporters  pass up freebies for the sake of professionalism, why don’t  highly paid U.S. Supreme Court justices? Even if it’s not required, why don’t they?  Perhaps it’s because federal judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices, have lifetime tenure. Maybe it really  doesn’t matter to them whether or not people think they are objective. They can’t be fired.  Which is a very good reason for term limits for federal judges.

The Lack of Equal Justice for All

There was an article in the New York Times recently about the elusiveness of justice for African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

This obviously reflects ingrained racism but it is also a symptom of a wider problem – the lack of equal justice for the poor and the middle class in America.

The leadership of our nation’s civil and criminal justice system, the U.S. Supreme Court, does not serve as a role model for equal justice for all. And the U.S. Congress, which holds the power of the purse-strings over the judicial branch, provides no discernible oversight as to how the court system spends taxpayer money.

An egregious example of the wider problem is  the U.S. Supreme Court‘s refusal to allow its proceedings to be broadcast. This is really an issue about transparency and accountability.  The leadership of the third branch of government in the world’s leading democracy has chosen not to be transparent and or accountable. And if you don’t like it, tough!

The Court’s disdainful attitude toward the American public was not acceptable after television attained broad popularity fifty years ago and it is completely unacceptable in the Internet age. The Court exists to serve the public, not the Court.  This doesn’t mean the Court is subject to the whims of the majority but that the Court must be guided by founding American principles of equality and justice for all.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I focus on the civil justice system, which  has utterly failed to protect older workers from irrational and harmful age discrimination. This is particularly true for vulnerable older workers (i.e. minorities and women).

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has made it almost impossible to win a federal age discrimination lawsuit. Age discrimination has become normalized in American society and is trickling down to ever younger workers (i.e., the youth apartheid state of Silicon Valley).  But younger workers have years to rebound, while older workers often are plunged into a penurious old age of deprivation.

I suggest the judiciary create a special federal court to hear appeals in  discrimination cases. This court could be staffed with federal judges who are both educated in and dedicated to the concept of equal justice. This court would not be limited to age discrimination but would decide appeals in all cases alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and disability, etc.

Age discrimination represents a kind of government subsidy for employers, by allowing them to replace more expensive older workers with cheap young labor. Taxpayers  pick up the tab in the form of higher social welfare costs, including health care and Social Security benefits.  I doubt that most taxpayers would want to pay this subsidy if they knew they were paying it.

National Chamber Lobbies Federal Cts

When people think  of lobbyists, they usually think of groups that work behind the scenes to  influence legislators in the U.S. Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however,  has had tremendous success “lobbying” federal courts  through  “friend of the court” briefs filed in  lawsuits  on behalf of its conservative  corporate clients. For example, the Chamber routinely opposes any perceived expansion of  worker rights and it usually prevails.

The Chamber, and its President Thomas Donahue, who earns a salary of $4.95 million a year, spend far more money to influence decision-makers than any other lobbying group.

The Center for Responsive Politics at  Open Secrets.org  estimated last year that the Chamber spent $1 billion from 1998 to 2013, which is three times the amount spent by the nearest runner up,  General Electric, which spent about  $294 million over the same period.   No union, labor, consumer or environmental group was listed in the top 20 U.S.  lobbying groups.

National Labor Relations Board

At present, the Chamber  is a critical player in a lawsuit opposing President Barack Obama’s 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).   Obama was forced to resort to recess appointments during Congress’s Christmas vacation in 2012 after encountering a wall of Republican resistance to his proposed appointments.

To challenge the recess appointments, the Chamber joined in a  lawsuit filed by Noel Canning  Corp., a small bottling company in Yakima, Washington. Noel Canning was the subject of  an adverse decision issued by the  NLRB in an unfair labor practices dispute. The Chamber argued that  the NLRB lacked the authority to issue the ruling because it was not comprised of constitutionally appointed board members.

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in the Chamber’s favor last year, holding that  Obama’s  appointments violated the Recess Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The appeals court said recess  appointments may be made only during the recess that occurs  between each session of Congress and not during  breaks that occur  while Congress is still in session. The Court also said recess appointments can  only be made to fill  positions that become vacant during the recess.

The NLRB filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a strong pro-business majority. The Court  heard the case in January and could, in its ruling, throw the NLRB into chaos and upset more than a thousand NLRB decisions issued during the past two years.

The Chamber also wants to “save” the CFPB by replacing its director with a bipartisan five-member commission and bring the CFPB under Congressional control. This  would castrate the new agency, which was created after massive fraud on Wall Street led to a world-wide economic meltdown from which the world (including the U.S.) has yet to recover.

Other Cases

On another front, the Chamber is opposing a proposed rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to publicize companies’ health and safety records.

Last year, the Chamber  successfully opposed the so-called “poster rule” proposed by the NLRB to require employers to pose notices in the workplace informing workers of their right to work together to improve their working conditions.

The Chamber  does not limit itself to “lobbying”  the courts and the legislature. A Google search shows the Chamber in February inserted itself into a special election in Florida. According to Politico, the Chamber  funded a TV commercial attacking Democratic Congressional candidate Alex Sink for supporting the Affordable Care Act which, the commercial states, will mean that  300,000 Floridians will “lose their current coverage because of Obamacare.”

The  Chamber describes itself  as “the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions, as well as state and local chambers and industry associations.”

Ready or Not, U.S. Supreme Court’s Close-Up

The U.S. Supreme Court was dragged into the internet age this week, when a covert two-minute video was posted online showing a protester being hauled away by police.

In what must surely be an embarrassment to the leading “democracy” of the world, it is thought to be the first video of the proceedings of America’s highest court

Unlike the other branches of government, the Court unilaterally refuses to allow electronic devises, including cameras, into the courtroom.

Televising coverage of the Court is important in the context of employment law because a pro-business majority of the Court has issued a series of rulings in recent years scaling back the ability of workers to assert their right to be free from discrimination and abuse in the workplace. It is unclear whether most Americans are even aware of this because they get their news from television. A Gallup poll in 2013 found that television is the main place Americans say they turn to for news about current events (55%), leading the Internet, at 21%. Nine percent say newspapers or other print publications are their main news source, followed by radio, at 6%.

The two-minute video was posted Thursday on the website of 99rise.org, a group that describes itself  a network of activists and organizers dedicated to building a mass movement to reclaim our democracy from the domination of big money.

The video features a protester rising during oral arguments on a patent case to denounce the Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which held  it is unconstitutional to ban free speech through the limitation of independent communications by corporations, associations, and unions.

“I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people who believe money is not speech, corporations are not people, and government should not be for sale to the highest bidder,” stated the protester, Noah “Kai” Newkirk, a co-founder of 99 Rise.

The protest occurred on Feb. 26 toward the end of arguments on a case involving patent attorneys’ fees, not campaign finance.  An unidentified person seated near Newkirk in the courtroom took the video, which is shaky and of poor quality. Reportedly, several audience members had “cameras” – probably cell phones.

Newkirk said he has pleaded not guilty to a charge of violating a federal law that prohibits “loud threatening or abusive language” in the Supreme Court building.