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High court justices cross the line of propriety 

By: BridgeTower Media Newswires//September 14, 2023

High court justices cross the line of propriety 

By: BridgeTower Media Newswires//September 14, 2023

By Spencer Farris 

It’s been hot here. Not islands and West Coast on fire hot, but hot all the same. I blame the heat for recent events. Hard to explain the weirdness that is around us any other way.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has been grabbing headlines lately, and not for the justices’ opinions — at least, not their official opinions. A long history of gifts from litigants appearing in front of the court is coming to light, and the light isn’t flattering.  

I have only received an all-expenses paid trip once, back in college when a buddy and I won a Halloween costume contest. I can’t tell you what we were. I actually could, but I won’t. At that point in my life, I wasn’t concerned about declaring the prize on my taxes. To college me, tax returns usually meant a small refund anyway. Because of that, I don’t know the tax implications of free trips. Evidently, this makes me a candidate for the Supreme Court. 

As a lawyer or a judge, appearances matter. The appearance of impropriety is enough to make most judges withdraw from cases. I recently had a case where three judges recused themselves because they knew one of the litigants. Not so in the Supreme Court, where the appearance of impropriety is an illusion. Like the alien fighting Men in Black, what we think we saw we did not see. (Is it a coincidence that they wear black robes?) 

Only slightly more troubling than some justices’ character is their intellectual honesty. When your only job is to interpret the Constitution and you say it gives you a lifetime appointment, free of the checks and balances that rein in the other institutions of our government, it is troubling. 

I am not a constitutional scholar, nor any other type of scholar for that matter. I remember the law student in my class who best understood ConLaw. He could be found daily, eating a pizza in the common area and going over his notes. He was happy to share his wisdom and debate the finer points of the Constitution with the rest of us, but he never shared his pizza.  

I like pizza a lot, but I have little stomach for discussions of what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution. My guess is that it was scratched out the night before it was due, much like most of my legal briefs. I give them credit for getting it done, centuries before spell-check or even erasers, and they did it in ink. Even so, I find it hard to believe that having left a nation ruled by an unelected monarch, the Founders would have empowered an unelected court to change the law with no recourse. 

A recent Gallup poll found that less than 25% of Americans have faith in the Supreme Court. Do with that number what you will, since only about a third of Americans can name even a single justice. Maybe this relative anonymity is the culprit behind the unreported gifts — certain justices don’t even know who they are and can’t be expected to do a stranger’s taxes.  

Tax returns aren’t that difficult to get right. In fact, there is an entire profession of men and women who dedicate a good portion of their workday to filing tax forms for others. For a reasonable fee, you can hire one of these people, called an accountant, to keep you in compliance with tax laws. I know because I have had one doing my taxes for me for years. I am less of a household name than SCOTUS members, outside of my own home. Even so, I am not willing to bet that the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t know who I am.  

There is an old proverb that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. One would assume that Supreme Court justices, having gone to law school and even practiced law, would be familiar with this proverb. Strict constructionists do not apply the proverb to accountants. It seems that justice is only blind to its own financial dealings. 

Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis. His column is made available by Missouri Lawyers Weekly. 

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