Mon January 24, 2011

Scalia Speaks to Tea Party Caucus, Democrats

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia accepted an invitation from the Tea Party Caucus to brief its members on the Constitution, controversy threatened to engulf the event. But the caucus then broadened the invitation to include Democratic members of Congress, too, and on Monday night there appeared to be more fizzle than sizzle to the charge of unseemly partisanship by a Supreme Court justice.

The event took place behind closed doors, so the only accounts of what happened came from those members of Congress who attended. Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) portrayed the event as respectful.

"We were delighted with his remarks," said Bachmann, noting that both Democrats and Republicans stood up to ask questions after the justice's formal presentation.

For many Republicans, Scalia is a rock star, and they talked about him afterward a bit like teenagers with a crush. Democrats were more reserved, suggesting that much of what Scalia said was, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) put it, "very dry."

Legal ethics experts largely agreed that Scalia violated no ethics rules, especially since he has spoken to liberal, as well as conservative groups, in the past.

"There's nothing wrong with it," said Northwestern University Law School legal ethics expert Steven Lubet. "At most it's a question of prudence, not ethics," he said, "and though it seems to be controversial, its not really any different than giving a lecture at a law school."

Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics specialist from NYU School of Law, said he views Scalia's appearance as healthy, and said he hopes that the same group will invite other justices with views different from Scalia's.

"I think this is a good thing," said Gillers. "I think it should be done maybe monthly, with a quiz at the end."

Meanwhile another controversy erupted over Justice Clarence Thomas' failure to disclose his wife's income on his financial disclosure forms. Over the weekend, the liberal watchdog group Common Cause reported that Thomas had failed to report nearly $700,000 paid to his wife over a four-year period by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Thomas had no comment, but on Monday he filed amendments to 13 years of his financial disclosure forms, adding that information and more about his wife's income. Such information on non-investment spousal income is required by the Ethics in Government Act. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.