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Legislation

The Ethics of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Accepting a Million Dollar Prize

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The Ethics of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Accepting a Million Dollar Prize

By Steven Lubet for The Conversation

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will donate to charity the US $1 million Berggruen Prize for Culture and Philosophy she recently won.

The prize is given annually to a “thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.”

The recipient of the award was decided by a five-member jury that chose among over 500 nominees and a short list of five finalists.

A million dollars is a big score for a public employee, even if it is generously directed to charity. So it is fair to ask whether there are any ethics problems raised by Justice Ginsburg’s receipt of the prize.

There are significant restrictions on outside income for all federal employees, and $1 million far exceeds the limitations.

The Supreme Court has no published ethical guidelines. U.S. Supreme Court

No ethics code

The ultimate answer is that there is no problem, for three reasons. But that will take some explaining, because the Supreme Court has obscured its own ethics standards.

First, the Supreme Court has never adopted an ethics code. Thus, the justices have no published rules governing the acceptance of gifts or prizes, whatever the amount or source.

Congressional legislation has been introduced that would require the court to adopt such a code, most recently at the opening of the 2019 session, but none of the bills has been passed. Thus, the Supreme Court justices remain the only nine judges in the U.S. who are not governed by written standards of conduct.

A second ethics problem might possibly arise under the U.S. Ethics in Government Act, which addresses gifts and awards to all federal employees, including judges.

The act requires every branch of government – executive, legislative and judicial – to create a “supervising ethics office.” Once created, each office would be authorized “to issue rules or regulations” governing the receipt of gifts.

The act further specifies that the Judicial Conference of the United States – which is the national policymaking body for the lower federal courts – shall be the supervising ethics office “for judges and judicial branch officers and employees.” That obviously includes the justices on the Supreme Court, who are definitely employees of the judicial branch.

The Judicial Conference has devised the required regulations regarding the receipt of gifts and outside income by judicial branch employees.

But contrary to the plain language of the Ethics in Government Act, which clearly includes all judicial branch “employees,” the gift restrictions exempt the Supreme Court justices from coverage. The rules apply to all U.S. judges “other than … the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The exclusion is baffling, especially since the Supreme Court has not set up its own “supervising ethics office.”

Resolutions and regulations

Other provisions of the Ethics in Government Act are routinely followed by the justices, who file the annual financial disclosure forms that the act requires of “the Chief Justice of the United States [and] the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court.”

As for the actual Judicial Conference gift and award regulations, do they apply to the Supreme Court justices? Not exactly – and probably. In 1991, the then-sitting Supreme Court justices issued a “Resolution” declaring that the Judicial Conference regulations “do not apply to officers and employees of the Supreme Court” but “the members of the Court resolve,” nonetheless, to “comply with the substance of the Judicial Conference Regulations.”

As Chief Justice Roberts has pointed out, the resolution was issued by “the members of the court” rather than the court itself. Complying with the “substance” of the regulations suggests something less, or at least more elastic, than full adherence.

The resolution itself, which the chief justice referenced but did not link to in his 2011 year-end report, is not posted on the Supreme Court’s website. Of those “members of the court” who issued the 1991 resolution, only Justice Clarence Thomas remains on the court.

If Justice Ginsburg or others have signed on to the resolution, they have done it without a public announcement.

The Judicial Conference regulations place restrictions on “the giving, solicitation, or acceptance” of certain gifts and awards by “officers and employees of the judicial branch,” including a $2,000 limit on the assignment of otherwise proscribed honoraria to charitable organizations.

But the definition of “gift” does not include “rewards and prizes given to competitors in contests or events, including random drawings, that are open to the public and that are available based on factors other than judicial status.”

The section covering which honoraria can be accepted and which ones are barred likewise places no limits on “awards for artistic, literary or oratorical achievement made on a competitive basis under established criteria.”

Thus, the various restrictions on award acceptance do not apply to the Berggruen Prize, which is presented for contributions to philosophy and culture. It has never before been given to a judge.

That was a long way to get to an obvious conclusion, but the circuitousness itself demonstrates the difficulty created by the absence of a Supreme Court code of conduct.

For the sake of transparency and public confidence, a Supreme Court code of conduct would eliminate the need to parse through multiple statutes and regulations, and to consult an unpublished, hard-to-find resolution, in order to reach a favorable conclusion about the ethics of a Supreme Court justice’s conduct.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

Steven Lubet is a Williams Memorial Professor of Law, Northwestern University. He does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Legislation

Virgina Bans Controversial “Conversion Therapy” for LGBTQ Youth

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Photo by Kristel Hayes

RICHMOND — Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer in Virginia now are protected from “conversion therapy,” after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law banning the practice .

The therapy involves mental-health practitioners trying to get a person to change sexual orientation or gender identity, and it’s been widely discredited. Virginia resident Adam Trimmer, who’s been through the controversial practice, said his therapist told him his sexual orientation was the result of an overbearing mother and a distant father.

Trimmer, who now serves as Virginia ambassador for anti-conversion therapy group Born Perfect, said it almost ruined his relationships with his parents.

“Conversion therapy completely wrecked our family. It wrecked my identity, it wrecked our family, and you don’t want this to happen in your family,” he said. “The issue is not that your child is part of the LGBTQ community. They just need someone to talk to.”

Virginia now is the 20th state — and the first in the South — to outlaw the controversial practice. The ban takes effect July 1.

The conversion-therapy bill is considered a historic breakthrough for LGBTQ Southerners, according to the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. She said more than one-third of all LGBTQ Americans live in the South.

“This continues to be the part of the country where discrimination is most enshrined in state law,” she said, “or where we haven’t been able to have the breakthroughs in pro-LGBTQ equality and laws that we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”

Currently, 28 states don’t have any laws that protect the more than 13 million LGBTQ Americans from discrimination. Other landmark rights bills also passed Virginia’s House and Senate, and are on their way to the governor.

The text of the legislation, House Bill 386, is online at lis.virginia.gov, and a Williams Institute LGBTQ fact sheet is at williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu.

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Environment

House Passes Schiff’s Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act

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WASHINGTON D.C. – Rep. Adam Schiff has applauded the bipartisan passage of The Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act, which would add more than 191,000 acres of the Rim of the Valley Corridor to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). The bill passed the House on a bipartisan basis with 231 Yeas and 183 Nays

Schiff first introduced this legislation in 2017, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris introduced companion legislation in the Senate. It recently passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan basis.

To view a map of the proposed expansion under the Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act, click here

“I am thrilled that the House of Representatives has passed the Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act, legislation I have championed for nearly 20 years,” Congressman Schiff said. “Preservation of the open space in our communities is not only good for our environment, wildlife, and ecosystems, but it is beneficial for the health and well-being of residents of all ages. The Rim of the Valley corridor is an area of striking and breathtaking natural beauty, and we must do whatever we can to preserve that beauty for the benefit of LA residents, the millions each year who visit, and for generations to come.”

“Today’s vote in the House is a win for the Rim of the Valley Corridor and the millions of Los Angeles County residents living in the surrounding communities,” said Senator Feinstein. “Preserving this unspoiled terrain will protect sensitive habitat for California wildlife and open space to benefit local economies. I am glad that Congressman Schiff was able to pass it in the House and look forward to doing the same here in the Senate, where it has already advanced out of committee.”

“The Rim of the Valley corridor is home to some of Southern California’s most beautiful wildlife and landscapes,” said Senator Harris. “That is why we must take immediate steps to protect this area’s habitats and natural resources. I am grateful to Congressman Schiff for his leadership on this issue and I applaud the House of Representatives for prioritizing the preservation of this area so it can be enjoyed by future generations. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to get this bill across the finish line.”

The proposed expansion is based on a six-year study of the region completed by the National Park Service in 2015. This legislation would expand the SMMNRA to include many, but not all, of the land included in the study. The lands included within the expansion will be known as the Rim of the Valley Unit and stretches from the Simi Hills and Santa Susanas to the Verdugos and on to the San Gabriel Mountains. The bill will enable NPS and the local community to better protect natural resources and habitats, and provide members of the community with improved access to nature for recreational and educational purposes.

To view the fact sheet about the legislation, click here.

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City

Significant Funding Announced for LA River Restoration Project

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Reps. Adam Schiff, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Jimmy Gomez have applauded the first significant federal funding for the LA River Restoration Project, which will revitalize more than 700 acres of open space along a broad stretch of the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park to downtown Los Angeles.

“The funding announced by the Army Corps of Engineers this week marks an important milestone in the decades-long effort to restore the Los Angeles River to its original natural beauty,” said Rep. Schiff. “I will continue working with the City of Los Angeles and the Corps to build further momentum on this project to revitalize the river’s aquatic ecosystem and provide much-needed green space for all Angelenos.”

“I am delighted that the Army Corps of Engineers’ Fiscal Year 2020 Work Plan provides critical funding to revitalize the LA River,” said Rep. Roybal-Allard. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I have fought hard to ensure the Army Corps has the funding it needs to move forward with this project, and I will keep up that fight in the years to come as we keep working to restore the river in our Southeast communities.  Restoring the LA River in the Southeast will improve the health and quality of life for families near the river, and provide these neighborhoods with much-needed new green space for recreation.”

“Strong federal investments toward revitalizing the Los Angeles River represent a major victory for our constituents, our city’s diverse communities, and the wildlife whose lives depend on the river’s ecosystem,” said Rep. Gomez. “The Los Angeles River provides us with a unique opportunity to prioritize green spaces for all Angelinos while also strengthening the river’s habitat connectivity. I deeply appreciate the efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to transform this historic waterway.”

“The L.A. River is an iconic treasure — a place that holds a special place in the history of our city and limitless potential for the future of our communities,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we will have the funding to help our river reach its full potential, restore an incredible natural habitat in the heart of Los Angeles, and connect more Angelenos to this remarkable resource in our own backyard.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Work Plan for Fiscal Year 2020, which includes $1.857 million for preconstruction engineering and design (PED) activities for the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Project, the first federal funding since FY17 and FY16, when the project received $400,000 and $100,000, respectively, for PED activities.

In April 2019, Schiff, Roybal-Allard, Gomez, and 12 colleagues from the Los Angeles area urged the House Appropriations Committee to provide strong funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the appropriations legislation that passed in December, Congress increased funding for the Corps by nearly 10% for Fiscal Year 2020—a 50% increase from the President’s budget request. This funding supports the Corps’ important ongoing civil works projects across the nation, including the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Project.

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