Were There Ethics Issues Behind Scalia's Death?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 19, 2016 12:59 PM

The body of the late Justice Scalia is laid out in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court today, where it's expected to see thousands of visitors come pay their respects: President Obama, Congress members, famous attorneys, and tourists alike.

But while much of the world continues to morn Justice Scalia's passing -- and argue about his potential replacements -- some are wondering if his death at a Texas ranch revealed a possible ethics lapse. The justice's final hunting trip, it seems, had been hosted by a businessman with business before the Supreme Court.

The Curious Case of John B. Poindexter

If you have to die, a death like Justice Scalia's isn't a bad one. The justice died in his sleep while taking a vacation for one of his favorite hobbies: hunting. That vacation was centered around the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region of Texas that has been described as a "rugged oasis for the famous."

Scalia's body was discovered lying peacefully in his bed by Cibolo Creek Ranch's owner, John B. Poindexter. Besides running the 30,000-acre ranch, Poindexter is also the founder and CEO of J.B. Poindexter & Co., one of the world's largest manufacturers of truck bodies.

And Scalia's trip was comped by Poindexter, it seems. Poindexter told The Washington Post that the justice, along with 35 other invited guests, was not charged for activities, room and board, or beverages.

Why does that matter? Because one of J.B. Poindexter's subsidiaries, the Mic Group, had recently been before the Supreme Court. Last Year, the High Court declined to grant cert in an appeal from an age discrimination ruling. In doing so, the Court let a Fifth Circuit ruling favorable to Poindexter stand, handing the company, and its ranch-owning CEO, a win.

Does It Matter? Not Exactly

To some, the free stay at a luxury ranch looks a bit too much like a quid pro quo. The Post interviewed Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal and judicial ethics at NYU Law, who said that "People worry at those kinds of things; there's a creation of access on the part of people with an interest in the courts, and that is unfair."

Are those worries justified in this case? Not in our view.

First, the gift of a free stay was given long after the Court had disposed of Poindexter's case, meaning Justice Scalia's stay could not have influenced his vote to grant cert or not, had he even been aware of the connection between Cibolo Creek Ranch and the Mic Group's alleged discrimination.

Secondly, Poindexter's connection to the Court was not a particularly direct one: a petition for cert, almost all of which are denied. Those votes to grant or deny cert are anonymous, making it nearly impossible for Poindexter to know how Justice Scalia had even responded to the petition.

But, if these concerns over Scalia and Poindexter aren't exactly spot on, they do remind us of something important: when it comes to the Supreme Court, there's not much transparency. The justices themselves decide when and why to recuse themselves from decisions, are in charge of creating their own ethics checks, make many of their decisions outside the eye of the public, and often have strong connections to individuals and industries that are directly affected by the Court.

These aren't the Court's greatest failings. Neither are they justifications for strange conspiracy theories. But they are certainly weaknesses that could be improved.

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