Scalia’s death highlights conflict of interest on highest court in the land

Far-fetched conspiracy theories on the nature of Justice Scalia’s death at the Cibolo Creek Ranch in southwest Texas have been circulating the airwaves and various online forums over the past four days. However, the circumstances surrounding Scalia’s very presence at the remote luxury resort may be as sinister as rumors that he was murdered are ridiculous.

The owner of Cibolo Creek, John B. Poindexter, told the Washington Post on Wednesday that Scalia was one of 36 guests invited to the West Texas resort last weekend, compliments of Mr. Poindexter himself.  The Supreme Court’s longest tenured Justice was not charged for his room or any of the long-list of amenities and activities which the ranch provides, including guided hunts, scenic tours, fine dining, and a full-service spa.

Coincidentally, Poindexter is also the owner and CEO of a Houston-based “diversified manufacturing company”, that was subject to an age discrimination lawsuit. Plaintiffs petitioned the High Court to hear the case after losing at the Appeals level, but their application was ultimately turned down in 2015.

This isn’t the first time that a conflict of interest issue has been raised with the late-Justice.

In 2004, Scalia refused to recuse himself from a Supreme Court case involving then-Vice-President Dick Cheney regarding his “energy task force”, even though the duo went on a hunting trip together while the case was still pending.

According to Stephen Gillers, a legal and judicial ethics professor at New York University School of Law, the issue of recusal is the most important ethical dilemma that Supreme Court justices face today, because each individual on the High Court’s bench makes their own decision about when or when not to excuse themselves from a case.

As opposed to judges who sit on lower federal courts, a justice’s decision at the Supreme Court level is not subject to review, even by their own peers.

Justice Scalia isn’t the only High Court judge subject to public scrutiny regarding potential partiality to one of the parties involved in a Supreme Court case either.

Since joining the Court in 2010, Justice Elena Kagan has refused to recuse herself from various cases involving the Affordable Care Act, despite previously serving  as solicitor general in the Obama Administration.

In 2007, 2008, and 2011, respectively, both Scalia and fellow Associate Justice Clarence Thomas were accused of being associated with, if not attending, events sponsored by Koch Industries.  Both justices names were mentioned on invitations signed by Charles Koch which read, in part, “twice a year our network meets to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it.”

A Supreme Court spokesperson later denied that either had ever participated in the Kochs’ political meetings, but did concede that the pair attended a Federalist Society dinner which was also sponsored by Charles Koch.

The Federalist Society is a conservative legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Scalia and Thomas’ association with the Koch brothers could call into question the pair’s supposed impartial judgement in cases such as Citizens United, a decision that struck down significant provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act which prohibited political advertisements paid for by corporations and labor unions during campaign season.

President Obama and the Senate alike now have the opportunity to nominate an ethical judge who will not be as willing to cozy up to Washington power-brokers and decide cases on the merits, rather than on political alliances forged through extravagant social events and lavish vacations compliments of a corporate defendant.


[Washington Post] [Los Angeles Times] [] [] [Photo courtesy Pam Leblanc]