In fact, when you become a judge, things happen. Many years ago, as a fairly new federal magistrate judge, I was chatting about our children with a local attorney I knew only a little. As our conversation unfolded, he mentioned that he had planned to take his 10-year-old to a Red Sox game that weekend, but their plan fell through. Would I like to use his tickets?
I was tempted. The tickets were beyond my usual price, and the game would have been a fun outing with my 7 year old. It didn’t seem to me that the lawyer was trying to do anything improper. It seemed to be — and almost certainly was — just a spur of the moment impulse arising from a friendly conversation. Besides, the seats at Fenway Park, like the much more expensive seat on the private jet used for free by Justice Samuel Alito on his Alaska vacation, would probably be empty if I didn’t take them. Who would be harmed?
To my chagrin, as I considered the situation, I became aware of an aroma of something off. Not an actual smell, of course, but something like that — something like sour milk or a pan left on the stove too long. It wasn’t that the lawyer had bad intentions; it was that I was approaching a limit. Silently gritting my teeth, I rejected the tickets.
A few years later, after I received my appointment as a lifetime US district judge, I issued a decision overturning the Social Security Administration’s denial of disability benefits to an elderly plaintiff. I was in our clerk’s office one day when the man and his wife approached me with a package. He had a hobby of woodworking, and inside the package was an exquisitely crafted oak pencil case with bronze hinges. My decision made a big difference to them, and they wanted to extend this modest, personal gesture of gratitude. Again, they were obviously not underpowered. Their trial was over, and this was probably the last they would ever see of me. However, as my police friends tell me, the road to doom starts with a free cup of coffee. As politely as possible, I lowered the pencil case. It still hurts me to remember their embarrassed, crestfallen faces.
All my legal colleagues, whoever appointed them, face situations like this on a regular basis, and I expect them to respond in kind. You don’t just stay within the lines; you stay well within the lines. This is not a matter of politics or judicial philosophy. It’s ethics in the trenches.