Justice’s distress signal should distress us all

Here is a tidbit from my years as a newspaper reporter and editor:

I never voted in a primary election, never attended the Iowa caucuses, never stuck a candidate’s sign in my yard, never had a bumper sticker on my car, never signed a petition, never donated to a campaign.

When Sue and I married, she got something more in the deal than my sparkling personality. She knew she could not have any yard signs, because people driving past our home would not know which part of the yard was for her opinions and which was for mine. To eliminate any confusion, there were no yard signs. Period.

Here are the reasons for my absolutist stand on what for most people are routine ways of showing their views:

I did not think it was appropriate to choose sides or take positions when I, or reporters who worked for me, would be writing about matters in dispute or campaigns being waged. It was important, I believed, that my work and the work of my staff be above reproach and free of any suggestion of bias.

During 50 years as a journalist, I knew many judges. To a person, these referees in our judicial system hewed to a belief like mine — that it was inappropriate to do or say anything that might suggest even a whiff of bias for one side or the other.

Judges I know do not want to harm the integrity of the judicial system through a lack of impartiality that would erode the respect, credibility and confidence in our courts. They even avoid chit-chat about government leaders or controversies. And their spouses are guarded in their public comments on such matters.

That is why the recent news out of Washington, D.C., is so troubling — because the reports suggest the Iowa style for judicial integrity is missing from the ethics of another justice on the United States Supreme Court.

A symbol of Donald Trump’s “stolen election” claims in the weeks after the 2020 voting became the upside-down United States flag that some Trump supporters displayed from their cars, outside their homes and businesses, and on social media.

Last week, the New York Times reported that one place flying the inverted American flag three days before Joe Biden’s inauguration was outside the suburban Washington home of Samuel and Martha-Ann Alito. Yes, that is Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court justice.

The newspaper reported that neighbors of the Alitos said the inverted flag was flying for several days from the pole outside their residence. Neighbors made photographs, some of which were obtained recently by the Times.

This is not fake news. Alito told the newspaper, “I had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag. It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.”

At the time the flag was atop the Alitos’ pole, the Supreme Court was deciding whether to hear a vote-counting case out of Pennsylvania. There still are cases pending before the court involving the former president.

The principle at the heart of the flag pole flap is not confined to Republicans or Trump cases. There would be controversy if Justice Sonia Sotomayor had a Biden-Harris yard sign. And there was controversy when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made statements before the 2016 election that she could not imagine what the nation would be like with Trump as president.

The point here is simple: Justices and their spouses should act and carry themselves in ways that are above reproach. Flying the inverted U.S. flag outside their home is wrong, just as it was wrong for Ginsburg to shoot her mouth off about Trump. RBG quickly apologized, but Alito has not.

While state court judges and lower federal court judges have codes of ethics they must abide by, the ethics guide for U.S. Supreme Court justices is toothless. Make no mistake, though, it is a clear problem for the Supreme Court’s credibility for a justice to have a prominent symbol outside his home that suggests support for the former president’s claims of the election being stolen.

Don’t take my word for it. Amanda Frost, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told the Times, “The equivalent of putting a ‘Stop the Steal’ sign in your yard is a problem if you’re deciding election-related cases.”

The Alitos apparently never had the conversation Sue Evans and I had many years ago about yard signs.

Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance wrote last week Justice Alito neglected to tell his wife, “Honey, I understand your feelings, but as a justice on the United States Supreme Court, I must avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and that flag conveys a political sentiment that is an affront to the rule of law that I’m sworn to uphold, especially after rioters carrying it swarmed the Capitol a week and a half ago.”

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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

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