When the conservative financier Charles Koch sent out invitations for a political retreat in Palm Springs later this month, he highlighted past appearances at the gathering of “notable leaders” like Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court.
A leading liberal group is now trying to use that connection to argue that Mr. Scalia and Mr. Thomas should disqualify themselves from hearing campaign finance cases because they may be biased toward Mr. Koch, a billionaire who has been a major player in financing conservative causes.
The group, Common Cause, filed a petition with the Justice Department on Wednesday asking it to investigate potential conflicts by Justices Scalia and Thomas and move for their disqualification from the landmark Citizens United case ... .
On June 8, 2008 more than 1,800 ACLU members, staffers and volunteers flooded in to Washington D.C. to attend the ACLU’s annual membership conference. ...
We got to hear from both clients and the people leading the charge in such diverse fields as Privacy, LGBT issues, Capitol Punishment, Affirmative Action and a whole score of other issues. ...
We also had such stand out guests as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and featured speakers like Arianna Huffington, Senator Arlen Specter, Helen Thomas and Kal Penn among others.
The Common Cause letter to Holder argues that a reasonable person would question Scalia's and Thomas' impartiality in the Citizens United case because (a) their attendance at the Koch retreat was highlighted in the invitation, (b) the Koch retreats are "highly political" and designed to garner support for a particular political course of action, (c) the retreats are secretive and proceedings are unpublished, (c) Koch was the moving force behind Citizens United, which was pending during the retreat Scalia and Thomas attended, and (d) "[r]egardless of the timeframe, we believe it is inappropriate for a Supreme Court judge to be 'featured' at or attend closed-door strategy meetings with political donors, corporate CEOs, candidates and political officials, and thereby lend the prestige of their position to the political goals of that event." The letter separately argues that Justice Thomas' wife's involvement with a conservative political group also is grounds for his disqualification from the Citizens United decision.
I believe that Scalia and Thomas are not "impartial" in any meaningful sense. They are movement conservatives whose jurisprudence is deeply slanted to reach their preferred politicals outcomes and occasionally is totally unprincipled. But if attending a meeting of like-minded people who are actively involved in pursuing political goals disqualifies a Supreme Court Justice from hearing a case, then Ruth Bader Ginsberg should be disqualified from hearing every ACLU case that comes before the Court. (She doesn't just attend their meetings and speak to their staff and donors, she used to work at the ACLU as the head of the Women's Rights Project!)
Important appellate judges have legal ideologies. People want to hear from appellate judges whose views they agree with. Absent the appearance that the judge is receiving some kind of specific, tangible benefit from an interested party to a case, then I think that these kind of celebrity appearances are relatively harmless.