Year in review: legal ethics

Politics, Crime

Legal ethics – the kind debated by lawyers and enforced by laws, regulations, and judges – have been top of mind for many in 2017. More than one high-profile story involving ethical concerns or outright violations of ethics standards made headlines.

The White House and the Emoluments Clause

The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a welter of ethical questions. So many, in fact, that Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and a career ethics professional, resigned in July. Shaub had clashed with the Trump administration and the White House early and often. Ethics inquiries or requests for assistance from Congress to the OGE were up 335 percent compared to the same period at the start of the Obama administration. Public inquires to the OGE increased by an astronomical 5,235 percent.

The OGE isn’t alone in dealing with ethical complaints about the new administration. In fact, a number of ethicists raised concerns about Trump’s vast business holdings prior to his inauguration. Since then, several hospitality entities and a group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a case in federal district court claiming that the Trump organization’s operation of its hotel in Washington, DC perpetuates ongoing conflicts of interest and violates the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution. The judge in that case found that the plaintiff’s lacked standing to bring the constitutional claim and granted the Department of Justice’s motion for dismissal. Attorneys for CREW vowed to appeal, and two other cases claiming that Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause remain pending.

Jeff Sessions’s recusal

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. A recusal is a pro-active step taken to avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest, even if there is no underlying conflict. Recusals by lawyers and judges are often required by their professional codes of conduct. Legal ethicists have deemed Sessions’s recusal, which stemmed from his interactions with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump taking office, as appropriate, but it has been roundly criticized by the president himself.

Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement, corporate accountability, and Congress

The sexual harassment and assault claims surrounding Harvey Weinstein jumpstarted a movement that has seen hundreds of women come forward with their own stories. The #metoo phenomenon raises questions about who had an ethical (or perhaps legal) responsibility to report sexual harassment in the workplace. In the Weinstein case, New York’s attorney general has opened an investigation.

Congress has seen its own upheaval in Weinstein’s wake, with Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Trent Franks (R-AZ) resigning in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment. These high profile resignations have increased the level of scrutiny on both houses’ internal Ethics Committees.

Travel, gifts, and Justin Trudeau

Tom Price, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, resigned after revelations that his use of private jets and government aircraft had cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has also drawn criticism for possible abuses related to travel. This is not an exclusively American problem. In December, Mary Dawson, Canada’s commissioner for conflicts-of-interest and ethics, ruled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated that country’s conflict-of-interest law when he vacationed, free of charge, on billionaire Aga Khan’s private Caribbean island.