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Unbelievable! First Nathan Hecht asks the Legislature to pay his legal fees for his successful challenge to a public admonishment by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which had given the state Supreme Court justice a slap on the wrist for his public advocacy of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. That was bad enough, before we learned today from a story in the Star-Telegram that Hecht, who had been poor-mouthing about being unable to afford the legal fees because of his meager $150,000 salary as a judge, had been soliciting contributions from lawyers to help him pay the fees. Hecht’s attempt at double dipping gives an entirely new meaning to “pleading in the alternative.”
I have written previously that I believed that Judge Hecht did nothing wrong in advocating the nomination of Ms. Miers, and that the Commission on Judicial Conduct overreached in issuing its admonition. (See “Hecht Maybe,” posted August 22, 2006.) I stand by that assessment. The Commission concluded that Hecht had violated two ethical canons, one stating that “a judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others,” the other mandating that “a judge or judicial candidate shall not authorize the public use of his or her name endorsing another candidate for any public office.” Hecht’s advocacy of Ms. Miers did not advance a private interest, not did it endorse a candidate for a public office. A Supreme Court seat (and the qualifications of the nominee to fill it) is not a matter of a private interest, nor is it a public office. Hecht argued that the canons he was alleged to have violated interfered with his right of free speech on a topic of national importance, and a panel comprised of three judges from the state’s intermediate appellate courts agreed.
But in asking the Legislature to pay his legal bills, Hecht committed irreversible error. On the one hand, he claimed the right to speak as an ordinary citizen who knew Miers and sought to share his knowledge with the media and the nation. But when he chose to fight the admonition, he wrapped himself in his judicial robes and asked the Legislature to pay for his defense because of his position. In short, he wanted it both ways. Or is it three ways, since he was simultaneously soliciting funds from the legal community while asking redress from the Legislature?
There is something terribly unseemly about a judge who thinks that the system owes him a bailout. Our legal system is not perfect. At times it convicts the innocent, enriches the wrongdoer, and bars the victim from being made whole. Such results are not the norm, but they do occur, and nobody knows this better than judges–unless it is ordinary people who live in dread of becoming ensnared in a lawsuit and seeing their savings eroded. Most of us in Hecht’s situation–that is, accused of doing something we didn’t believe was wrong–would have faced a no-win choice of fighting the charges or settling the case to avoid the astronomic cost of litigation, at the price of accepting a smudge on our reputations. Hecht could have accepted the admonition and gone on with his highly regarded work on the court. He could have fought the charges, cleared his name, and resigned from the bench to joined a law firm at a stipend that would pay his legal bills many times over. He could have solicited funds for his defense, as state law allows, knowing that the dastardly media would point out that the lawyers most likely to contribute were those who had cases on appeal. What he couldn’t have done was fight the admonition without a considerable financial sacrifice, which he was not willing to make. So he asked the taxpayers to make it. That’s wrong. He should resign from the bench.