Yesterday, following the announcement of the Recount Commission’s finding that Charlie White had been eligible to run for Secretary of State (or, more accurately, their conclusion that they couldn’t conclusively prove otherwise), I got a call from a reporter. Her question was not about the Commission’s conclusion; instead, she wanted to know whether the chair should have recused himself from the deliberations, since he had hosted a fundraiser for White, and his firm had donated $5000 to White’s campaign.
My answer, of course, was yes.
It is perfectly possible that–as he claimed–the contribution and prior support did not influence the chairman’s decision. But that is irrelevant. The facts of the matter raised an appearance of impropriety, and that appearance alone was enough to require recusal. Citizens have to be able to trust that their public institutions are operating impartially and fairly; otherwise, suspicion and cynicism will undermine our faith in the legitimacy of government and erode respect for–and compliance with–the laws.
Instances of what we might call “ethical insensitivity” seem to be proliferating: recently, commentators have reported on activities of Clarence Thomas (and especially his wife) that raise serious questions about the Judge’s impartiality. A couple of years ago, Justice Scalia shrugged off criticism of his cozy vacation with Dick Cheney during a time when a lawsuit against Cheney was pending at the Supreme Court. Closer to home, we have the President of the City-County Council insisting that his vote to award a lucrative city contract to a client of his law firm did not constitute a conflict of interest.
In each of these cases–and many others–the person accused of a conflict insisted that the relationship at issue didn’t affect his judgment. Perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t. But that isn’t the point. The point is that such relationships inevitably cast doubt on the integrity of the proceeding.
Think about it: If you were a party in a lawsuit, and you knew that the opposing party regularly played poker with the judge, and had supported him politically, how confident would you be that the Judge’s ultimate ruling would be impartial? Wouldn’t you ask for a change of venue, or a different judge? If you were a taxpayer whose elected representative was voting to spend your tax dollars on a deal that benefited his brother-in-law, or a big client, how confident would you be that he cast that vote based solely on policy considerations?
And how reassured would you be if such public servants pooh-poohed your reservations?