Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Conflict of Interest - California Supreme Court Judges' Portfolios Deny Citizen Justice

From and AP story in yesterday's Anchorage Daily News

For years, Braxton Berkley was exposed to chemicals while helping build top-secret military planes at Lockheed Martin's storied Skunk Works plant. He says those chemicals made him ill - but his case reached a dead end at the state's highest court.

The California Supreme Court has refused to hear his appeal not on legal merits, but because four of the seven justices cited a conflict of interest because they controlled stock in oil companies that provided some of the solvents at issue in the case.
Conflicts of interest are natural. They occur when our personal obligations conflict with our public or professional obligations. They aren't inherently bad. They are potentially unavoidable. People's public and private lives sometimes, unforeseeably come into conflict. But people whose personal interests and obligations are going to frequently and significantly interfere with their ability to perform their public duties, simply shouldn't run for office.

The California Supreme Court is an example of personal obligations not only conflicting, but totally thwarting what they are there to do. Mr. Braxton's right to appeal has been denied, because the court members have conflicts of interest. Not all cases get accepted by the Supreme Court. But if this case was otherwise accepted and is now rejected because of the conflict of interest, then this is completely unacceptable. Their portfolios are more important than their duty to provide justice.

The article says:

It's common for at least one justice to bow out of a case because of a financial or personal conflict. California Chief Justice Ron George, for instance, recuses himself from cases handled by the prominent law firm where his son practices. In those situations, an appellate judge is temporarily appointed to the Supreme Court to hear that case.

George said the remaining justices decided to dismiss the case because they were concerned that a Supreme Court ruling made with a majority of temporary justices wouldn't hold the same weight as an opinion of the permanent court.

Maybe it would be a better decision. And what happens to Mr. Braxton is also important.

Other options include selling the offending stock or resigning from the bench and postponing the case until there are enough new justices without such conflicts. I realize that is may sound extreme, but overall, we've become much too forgiving to public office holders' needs to make money outside of their offices.

Regular readers of this blog know I usually attempt to lay out as many of the cards as I can and just let the reader make her own opinion. And I can give lots of reasons why there might be good people kept out of office by the various restrictions and disclosure requirements. And I think we should pay our elected officials enough so they don't have to go looking for outside payments. But overall, people whose work or whose fortunes are going to create conflict after conflict simply shouldn't run for office. The work got done before these justices were on the California Supreme court and it will get done when they leave. They aren't indispensable.

Overall, I think it is a great embarrassment that these justices felt it was ok to dismiss Mr. Braxton's case because, well, you know, too many of us have a conflict of interest. You know, it happens. Well it shouldn't.

OK, I shouldn't get quite so righteous from reading one article which may have left out some crucial information. But this is a sore point for me - officials who think they are so important and so indispensable that we should make allowances so that on the side they can make lots of money. On the other hand, I don't see anything wrong with public officials juggling with the schedule to attend significant events in their families.

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