Category: Legal Ethics

Dedicated Ventilators?


Imagine that bird flu hits the United States, and you’re a doctor at a hospital filled with 700 infected patients who all need ventilators to help them breathe. You have 100 ventilators. How do you allocate them? To the sickest? the youngest? the oldest? the most likely to live? the ones most likely to die without one?

The choices would be unthinkable, as Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum have suggested. We should be doing much more to avoid them, or at least make them less stark. But as this article from the NYT shows, we are instead doing very little:

Right now, there are 105,000 ventilators, and even during a regular flu season, about 100,000 are in use. In a worst-case human pandemic, according to the national preparedness plan issued by President Bush in November, the country would need as many as 742,500. To some experts, the ventilator shortage is the most glaring example of the country’s lack of readiness for a pandemic.

Now aren’t you happy that market forces got rid of all that “excess hospital capacity” in the 80s and 90s? According to one doctor from the Mayo Medical School, “Families are going to be told, ‘We have to take your loved one off the ventilator even though, if we could keep him on it for a week, he might be fine.'”

Given various budgetary crises, we can’t expect much help from government. Is there any creative solution? I’d like to suggest one: Let individuals buy ventilators to dedicate for themselves and their families (at nearby hospitals), in exchange for their donation of one ventilator for each one they dedicate. Here’s some “figures”….

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Law Clerk Disqualification

There has been some to-do about this story concerning one of Justice Alito’s soon-to-be clerks. In brief, the article quotes some academics who have a problem with the selection of Mr. Ciongoli, who is a former clerk of then-Judge Alito and a former aid to then-Attorney General Ashcroft. The article reports that Ciongoli had a hand in creating “the Bush administration’s legal strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.” As a result, some academics (Deborah Rhode is cited) question whether it is proper to have clerks who are perceived as “partisan” or who may be able to influence the way “his own work” is judged by the Court.

Stephen Gillers is quoted as saying that Ciongoli will likely be removed from working on cases that touch on his prior experience, as a way of mitigating the latter fear. I suspect that is in fact what will occur, but I don’t know that it should, or that if Alito were to ask for Ciongoli’s opinion he would be doing anything the least bit wrong. Is it unethical, for example, for a judge to ask for a clerk’s opinion on a case that was decided the prior year by the court on which the clerk was then working? Obviously the current practice (though not always the historical one) is for judges to recuse when they have participated on a case. (There have been many examples of Supreme Court Justices participating in cases interpreting laws they had a hand in drafting or implementing before assuming the Bench.) But isn’t the situation different when the only prior involvement is that of a clerk, and the judge would be able to evaluate his advice with a grain of salt?

I know of no statutory restrictions on the ability of clerks to participate in cases because of their prior experience. There is the danger of undue influence, but I think it is minimal, since (1) clerks see it as their job to advise their judges and not to deceive them or push for policy results, (2) judges retain the final decision, and (3) the chance that a judge’s opinion will be significantly different from his clerk’s is very small, at least as to an issue for which the clerk has developed a reputation.

I can see a large upside to allowing these clerks to participate in cases with which they are familiar. First, it eliminates a large amount of time that would be spent in gaining background information. Second, it is an inestimable advantage to have a clerk who has substantive experience in the field implicated by a particular case. Decisions are more likely to be correct and anticipate potential unintended consequences if the judge has the advice of someone who knows the field. Third, the prior experience is likely to alert the clerk to potential counter-arguments, so the involvement of the clerk may be as likely to fully inform the judge as to bias his understanding of the case.

All this is different, of course, from the situation where a clerk participates in a decision that may have an effect on the clerk’s future employment, for example if the clerk’s future firm is representing a party in the Court. If anything the problem is more severe in that circumstance, but there (to my knowledge) the involvement of the clerk is left completely within the judge’s discretion.


Justice Scalia’s CLE

I had the great privilege of attending the CLE that was the subject of this week’s ABC story. Justice Scalia led several of the discussions/lectures, a task which required him to be an active presenter for several hours each of the two days of the conference. Details of the conference are made clear in a letter Federalist Society President Gene Meyer wrote to the President of ABC News. I am floored that anyone thinks there is anything the least bit improper about Scalia’s attendance. Still more am I surprised that this passes as “investigative” reporting, given that the Federalist Society advertised Scalia’s attendance at the Conference and that the same was reported by the AP immediately after Chief Justice Roberts was sworn in.

Stephen Gillers, a professor at NYU, is quoted in the story as saying that Scalia should not have taken the trip for “several reasons,” including the Federalist Society’s “decided political-slash-judicial profile.” Few, if any, groups would fail to be disqualified from having a sitting judge speak to their members under this heretofore unheard-of test. Certainly the ABA and the ACLU have “decided political-slash-judicial profile[s]” and yet — properly — nobody has raised any question of the propriety of speaking to such audiences.

The public ultimately is much the better for groups’ opportunities to interact with Justices, barring extreme cases where the group in question is pursuing an ex parte contact in a case pending or about to be pending before the Court. This proposition, which has been accepted for decades if not forever, is all the more applicable for situations like the conference in question, because it was an opportunity for the participants to learn interactively about a subject interesting the Justice, as opposed to the more typical event where the Justice simply gives a speech.

Of course this is not the first time critics of Justices have fabricated ethical concerns as a way of encouraging opposition to Justices whose philosophies the critics oppose. Scalia himself was the target of such a campaign recently in the Cheney duck hunting episode, prompting criticism by Gillers among others, and ultimately resulting in Scalia’s release of an extraordinary memo defending his non-recusal in the case and pointing out that ethical rules had never before required refraining from the behavior for which he was being criticized. Similar questionable invocations of ethical concerns appear in the Haynsworth and Fortas confirmations, Fortas’s criticism perhaps less questionable than the others.

UPDATE: Here are two posts discussing the report: one from SCOTUS Blog and another from the VC.


Unauthorized Practice on Craigslist?


I was recently browsing Craigslist’s Legal Forum. On that forum, folks post legal problems and others answer them. Some of the answering posters identify as lawyers, but do not provide their names.

The forum describes itself as follows:

res ipsa loquitur

DISCLAIMER – craigslist is not responsible for, and you may not rely upon, the accuracy of any information or advice posted here – this forum is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only – you should consult with an attorney prior to acting on any information found here.

Will such boilerplate really protect CL if, say, the PA Bar were to seek an injunction again the discussion group for hosting the unauthorized practice under 42 PA C.S.A. 2524? Or if the Bar were ask the attorney general of Pennsylvania to seek criminal penalties under that section’s misdemeanor provisions? I’m imagine that CL would try to avoid liability by pointing to the “Terms of Use” provisions on the page, but do such disclaimers survive a Grokster-like analysis? Maybe Dan’s analysis of suing wikipedia would throw some light on this problem. I haven’t been able to find much in the legal ethics literature on this problem – and some might argue that state bars have enough on their hands without investigating internet practice.

Obviously, what constitutes the practice of law is a matter for debate, and you should feel free to visit the site yourself and make your own mind up.