Judicial ethics and secrecy

The kind of political shenanigans that play out every day in the legislative and executive branches of government — conflicts of interest, pay-to-play allegations, ethical missteps — are intolerable within the judiciary. Judges must ensure all who come before them are treated fairly and impartially under the law. Judges must be beyond reproach.

With that in mind, last year Nevada Supreme Court candidate Kris Pickering made public allegations of an obvious threat to the integrity of the state’s highest court. Just prior to voting in her general election runoff against Deborah Schumacher, Ms. Pickering revealed that in July 2008 her former campaign manager had presented an offer of $200,000 in bundled campaign contributions.

But those donations, to be rounded up by attorney Laura Fitzsimmons, would come with a very long string attached to them: If Ms. Pickering were elected to the Supreme Court, she would have to recuse herself from Ms. Fitzsimmons’ cases. And if Ms. Pickering refused the bundled donation, the offer would be presented elsewhere.

The allegation was stunning, a potentially criminal offer to buy the silence of one of the Supreme Court’s seven justices.

Ms. Pickering responded by firing her campaign manager, Gary Gray, and reporting him to authorities. She went on to win election to the Supreme Court.

The case is still under investigation, but those allegations are being brought to the public’s attention again because Ms. Fitzsimmons has business before the high court: fighting a Clark County appeal to an $8.3 million eminent domain judgment. And Ms. Fitzsimmons, who vehemently denies all of Ms. Pickering’s allegations, has filed a motion demanding that Ms. Pickering disqualify herself from the case.

Attached to that motion is a supporting statement from San Francisco attorney Richard Flamm. Mr. Flamm, whose supposed specialty is judicial ethics, argues not only that Ms. Pickering can’t hear the case, but that she shouldn’t have made public the allegations at all.

“Since her charges were made by a candidate for Nevada’s highest court … and stated in an unequivocal manner that made it appear as if they had been proven in a court of law — then-candidate Pickering either knew or should have known that a large section of the public would believe them,” he wrote, adding that Ms. Pickering was “expressly forbidden” from making any statements that would “cause a reasonable person to question her ability to be impartial in hearing this appeal.”

Mr. Flamm argues that it is unethical for a judicial candidate to openly discuss an obviously unethical proposition and the people behind it — that allegations of a campaign contribution scheme which, unchecked, would have stained the entire Supreme Court, should have been brought forth in a way that kept the entire affair under wraps to the electorate.

If such circumstances present themselves to an honest candidate for judicial office, that candidate’s primary concern should not be whether the alleged ringleader could one day have official business before the court. The primary concern must be protecting the integrity of the court and preserving the public’s trust in government institutions.

Since when is judicial secrecy — in elections or actual decisions — in the public interest? Mr. Flamm’s argument is pure poppycock.

No, Ms. Pickering did the right thing in going public with allegations that, if true, would provide another few pages in Nevada’s history of political corruption.

However, doing the right thing also requires Ms. Pickering to recuse herself from Ms. Fitzsimmons’ case. It would be too easy for any attorney to argue that Ms. Pickering would be less than fair to an attorney she accused of something between bribery and extortion.

Ms. Pickering should stick by her belief that judges must be beyond reproach.

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