Common Cause Questions Scalia’s Speech to Political Group

Did “Friends of Abe” Appearance Violate Judicial Ethics?

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose past appearances before political groups have prompted inquiries about his adherence to ethical guidelines imposed on other judges, has new questions to answer in the wake of an expenses-paid trip and speech last year to a secretive, Republican-aligned group in California, Common Cause said today.

In a letter to Scalia, the government watchdog organization urged the justice to release additional details about his address to the “Friends of Abe” organization last August. The group has been described as “the most important source of underground political activism in Hollywood today.” The disclosure should include a text of his remarks, the agenda for the meeting and the names of any other speakers, Common Cause said.

Scalia disclosed the trip in a financial disclosure report filed earlier this month and released late last week.

“The Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges specifically tells judges to ‘refrain from political activity,’ including speaking to partisan groups,” said Arn Pearson, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation. “Friends of Abe appears from press reports to be highly partisan, with a roster of recent speakers that includes key figures in the national Republican Party and a record of activism on behalf of Republican candidates.”

Steven Ross, a historian at the University of Southern California, described the Friends of Abe in a Washington Post blog as “the most important source of underground political activism in Hollywood today.” “Against that backdrop, any appearance by a member of the Supreme Court would appear to be problematic at best,” Pearson said.

Common Cause’s letter to Scalia urges the justice to explain why he would appear before such a group. “If you believe that your travel and speech before a ‘Friends of Abe’ function does not violate the letter or spirit of the Code of Conduct, Common Cause respectfully asks you to set forth your reasoning to the American people,” the letter says.

Common Cause has urged Congress to pass legislation that would bring Scalia and other members of the Supreme Court under the Code of Conduct and has called repeatedly on the Court to formally adopt the Code. In testimony to congressional committees, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer have asserted that the justices follow the code voluntarily.

Chief Justice Roberts devoted a portion of his 2011 Year-End Report to the topic of judicial ethics, calling the Code of Conduct a “key source of guidance” to the justices. In a February, 2012 letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy, D-VT, Roberts repeated that the justices treat the code as the “starting point and a key source of guidance” on ethical questions but that the court has “no reason to adopt the Code of Conduct as its definitive source of ethical guidance.”

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