WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (search) says he and his colleagues have every right to mingle with other Washington power-brokers and give speeches without having their integrity questioned.
But a public and painful two-month dispute over his socializing with Vice President Dick Cheney may have other justices reconsidering their own activities, legal ethics experts say.
Scalia on Thursday rejected a request that he stay out of a case involving Cheney, saying a duck hunting trip he took with the longtime friend did not cross the line.
He compared the trip to social activities that justices have engaged in with presidents and other officials dating back more than a century, including poker games, dinner parties and ski trips.
Justices are no longer advisers to presidents, as some once were, Scalia wrote, "but the well-known and constant practice of justices' enjoying friendship and social intercourse with members of Congress and officers of the executive branch has not been abandoned, and ought not to be."
The public schedules of the nine current members of the court vary widely, from Justice David H. Souter (search) who declines almost all invitations, to Scalia and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), who are frequent guests at Washington parties and juggle speaking and teaching engagements.
Tracking the events is difficult because justices file the barest of details on their financial disclosure forms. They list the dates of paid trips, but do not include information about the cost or exact details of who paid for what.
Under rules the justices must follow, socializing and speechmaking are acceptable unless they cause a justice's impartiality to "reasonably be questioned" in a particular case.
The Sierra Club (search) maintains that happened when Scalia took the hunting trip to Louisiana with Cheney three weeks after the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Bush administration must release information about closed-door meetings of Cheney's energy task force.
Dozens of newspapers joined the environmental group in calling for Scalia's recusal from the case, to be argued next month.
"It has damaged the court in public esteem," said Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University. "The lesson, if it is learned, is that they should be a little more careful about their relationships with people who have litigation before them. Subliminally, it will have some mark."
Sherrilyn Ifill, who teaches law at the University of Maryland, said justices don't have to live in isolation. However, "the sense that the court is detached from the fray in Washington helps the legitimacy of the court," she said. "The court has to pay attention that many people are taking a harder look."
It is not known whether the controversy will keep any justices off the speaking circuit.
Some court members travel and give speeches frequently, including to groups that litigate at the high court.
In January, for example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (search) spoke at an event held in her honor, sponsored by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. Last year, she spoke to the American Civil Liberties Union (search), a group in which she served as a leader and lawyer before becoming a judge.
Drew Days, a former solicitor general, said speeches and appearances are important. "I like that they're reaching out, putting a public face on the court which you don't get to see on TV."
Justices are not required to explain their recusals, or non-recusals. But Scalia filed a detailed explanation of his. He noted that the same Sierra Club lawyer who sought his recusal had written him a letter last fall while the energy case was pending to encourage the justice to speak to a law school class. The lawyer called Scalia by his nickname, Nino, and sent regards to Scalia's wife.