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Op-ed: Ethics and partisanship

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Today, Stanford Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession will host a panel discussion on “Ethical Lawyering in the Age of Trump.” Setting aside the merits of this rather bland, sanctimonious title, the Center on the Legal Profession has publicized this program in a manner that strikes me as both deceptive and partisan. And perhaps even unethical.

The online description proceeds from an avowedly partisan premise: “The issue of Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels is only the most recent in a line of highly questionable ethical choices by the president, his administration, and their lawyers.” Although events may well bear out these bare assertions, they nonetheless remain — for the moment — nothing more, better suited for talk radio than serious discourse.

Moreover, the panel is comprised of three known partisans. Whatever their merits as scholars, Professor Rhode and Professor Sklansky — both resident at Stanford Law School — make no secret of their liberal politics, both inside and outside the classroom. I can hardly imagine politically volatile questions will receive even-handed treatment from either of them.

Far more concerning is the main attraction, Richard Painter. Although, as if to lend bipartisan credibility to this exercise, Painter is billed in event publicity as the “Former Chief Ethics Lawyer to President George W. Bush,” he is, in point of fact, now a registered Democrat who is running for the United States Senate in Minnesota. Although he formally announced this campaign only last week, Painter formed an exploratory committee months ago.

In the years before his conscience finally compelled a formal party switch, Painter has aligned himself closely with a number of partisan Democratic endeavors — most notably the dubiously-dubbed “Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,” where he succeeded longtime Clinton apparatchik David Brock as one of the organization’s leaders.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with visitors to Stanford Law School criticizing President Trump. But there is something very wrong when an institution with a mandate to eschew electioneering — let alone the Center on the Legal Profession, which claims, tenuously, to dedicate itself to “sustain[ing] ethical values” — promotes an avowedly partisan political cause, like Richard Painter’s campaign for the United States Senate.

Given that Painter has been invited to speak on what can fairly be described as his “pet” issue, the obvious practical consequence of this program will be to burnish his “reformist” credentials, as he begins what is likely to prove a long-shot campaign. Especially when he will be flanked by strident partisans like Rhode and Sklansky.

Last week, I wrote to the Center on the Legal Profession to voice these concerns; predictably, I never received a response. However, in a recent schoolwide e-mail, Lucy Ricca, Executive Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, did finally acknowledge the donkey in the room: “Richard Painter, former chief ethic’s [sic] officer [sic] under George W. Bush has just announced he is running for Senate in Minnesota as a Democrat. Should be a great event.”

To the extent we must assume some logical connection between these sentences — the only two of any substance within the aforementioned email — it would seem that Ricca has not only acknowledged Painter’s partisan activities, but also endorsed them. Put another way, she has drawn an explicit connection between Painter’s partisan activities and his participation in this program.

On the most charitable reading, the propriety of all this strikes me as dubious. Particularly given Stanford’s obligation to refrain from electioneering. Much like anyone else, Painter is free to form his own political opinions, no matter how self-serving or misguided. But a putatively neutral forum like Stanford should not offer him a platform with which to advocate for them — especially under the smug and moralizing guise of some great ethical crusade.

—Martin J. Salvucci, JD ’18

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