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Dec 31, 2004 11:38 pm

Changing the Ethics Rules

This morning's Washington Post brings troubling news that House Republican leaders are considering weakening the already painfully weak ethics rules in the lower chamber. Under the current system, only members can file ethics complaints, and a majority or tie vote from the committee, whose membership is evenly divided between thw two parties, requires opening of an investigation. The restriction on the filing of complaints to members, coupled with the so-called ethics"truce," meant that the committee did virtually nothing for a 7-year period, even delaying taking formal action against former congressman Jim Traficant after he was convicted.

Then, last fall, under heavy outside pressure, it delivered two mild rebukes of Majority Leader Tom DeLay on two matters. The new policy would make it more difficult for an inquiry into DeLay-like matters to occur in the future: Ethics Committee members of the offending party could shield themselves behind a procedural vote (declining to open an investigation) rather than having to vote against formal sanctions after inconvenient facts become public.

There's no question that the ethics process was politicized in the late 1980s. But this morning's news brings word of why tougher, not less stringent, ethics laws are needed. It turns out that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received more than his share of gifts over the past few years, including a $19,000 Bible from Republican donor, $15,000 for a Lincoln bust from the American Enterprise Institute, and $5,000 in cash from a mobile home enthusiast to pay a relative's education expenses. As Mark I. Harrison, who heads the ABA's Commission on the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, commented,"Why would someone do that — give a gift to Clarence Thomas? Unless they are family members or really close friends, the only reason to give gifts is to influence the judge." Thomas' office had no comment.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 1/2/2005

I find the whole business of Supreme Court justices accepting gifts troubling. Some apparently don't accept gifts. Others don't have a problem accepting them as long as they are in accord with ethics rules (which seem lax). The reporting on this issue is troubling, though. The ABA guy offers the question why anyone would give a gift to Thomas? I should think the question cuts against all justices who take gifts. Hmmm. And Thomas' gifts, though within the admittedly slack ethics rules, is characterized by one blogger(implicitly) as 'malfeasance' -- an interesting if loose use of the word. Thomas' gifts are also listed as the greatest, while it is aknowledged that other Supreme Court justices accept all-expenses-paid trips to Europe, for which no figure is offered -- how then does one rank the gift receivers?

Julie A Hofmann - 1/1/2005

Can someone explain to me how any public servant can justify relaxing ethics rules. This makes me sooooo angry. We pay these people, and they have an obligation to at least pretend that they are working in our best interests.

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