Justice is duck-hunt blind

By Scott Rosenberg
Published March 19, 2004 7:43PM (EST)

Perhaps Justice Antonin Scalia is a mole, a plant, a long-ticking time-bomb who has thundered his conservative judicial ideology across decades only, finally, to explode in his allies' faces with one spectacular burst of hubris, arrogance and contempt for the lowly voters and scribes who dare question his right to hunt ducks with anyone he pleases.

Could there be any other explanation for the absurdity of yesterday's news, in which Scalia issued a memorandum defiantly defending his right to go a-hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney while sitting in judgment on a case directly involving Cheney?

Scalia argued that legal and historical precedent support the idea that Supreme Court justices can be friends with public officials and still rule on matters affecting those officials. I'm not a lawyer, and perhaps he is right -- maybe this sort of thing has been going on for decades. That's hardly the point here.

Let's review: Cheney met with a bunch of energy executives in the early days of the Bush administration, and he has fought a legal battle to keep the records of those meetings secret. This fight is now before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in January Scalia went on a duck hunting trip in Louisiana with Cheney on the estate of an energy industry executive. (Scalia says that Wallace Carline is not an energy executive because the company he is president of, Diamond Services Corp., is not an oil company but an oil services company. Oh.)

Scalia flies down for the excursion on the Vice President's plane. (But, protests Scalia, he paid his own way!) He hunts with Cheney. (But, protests Scalia, he and Cheney were not even in the same "blind"!) And none of this has any bearing on anything, according to Scalia: "I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned."

"If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court Justice can be bought so cheap, the Nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined." It is, Justice Scalia, it is.

There's a circular reasoning at work in Scalia's memo, a sort of recursive blind spot, that's both amusing and appalling. The energy task force scandal itself hinges on the question of whether it's appropriate for the vice president to conduct the public's business as a private matter among clubby business chums. The Supreme Court must rule on that issue -- but here's Scalia saying the public should not be troubled that his own relationship with Cheney is exactly analogous to the relationships at issue in the energy task force dispute. Scalia just can't seem to get his inflated head around this; he seems to think that the public is worried that he and Cheney discussed details of the energy case while shooting ducks. Scalia's memo drips with contempt for both the public and the media --but we're not that stupid.

Scalia finds it unbearable to ponder a world in which Supreme Court Justicesare prohibited from maintaining friendships with government officials whose political futures might hang on how the court's rulings fall. He writes, "A rule that required Members of this Court to remove themselves from cases in which the official actions of friends were at issue would be utterly disabling."

Maybe we could use such "disabling." Maybe such a change in what's acceptable and routine in Washington would help end the sickening reign of cronyism that has marked Bush's and Cheney's tenure -- ever since they rode into office, with a little help from a friend on the Supreme Court.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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