Opening Day of Major League Baseball and the start of the new season this week provide an ideal opportunity for the Supreme Court to ask what it can learn from the ethical rules that govern umpires in professional athletics.
"Judges are like umpires," Chief Justice John Roberts famously declared at his confirmation hearing, but if several of his colleagues were professional baseball umpires, they would have been fired or disciplined long ago for egregious breaches of professional rules that insist upon scrupulous neutrality and the avoidance of fraternization with players and their club employers.
The Supreme Court, which has not adopted for itself any comprehensive code of ethical conduct like the ones that govern professional athletics (or for that matter lower court judges), is now embroiled in controversy over its lax approach to rules requiring justices to recuse themselves from real and perceived conflicts of interest. Although the judge-as-umpire analogy is flawed in some ways, the Court could certainly benefit from studying and embracing the code of conduct rules that professional umpires and referees follow.
The Major League Baseball Umpire Manual provides that "umpires should avoid excessive casual unnecessary conversation with players, coaches, managers, or spectators" during games and, off the field, may not even "visit club offices unless official business requires otherwise" (emphasis added). All interactions with teams and their players must be on a public and official level.
The Manual also specifies: "To avoid appearances of impropriety, umpires should be cautious regarding any casual fraternization" with team players and club employees (emphasis added). The idea of an umpire headlining a fundraiser or pep rally for a specific team is unthinkable.
Furthermore, the Manual provides that umpires "shall not make public statements that create an appearance of lack of impartiality toward a player or Club . . ." It also bans the receipt of "compensation or anything of value from any Major League Club or any third party." The whole point of the Code is to prevent the reality and appearance of umps showing even the slightest tilt in one direction or another so they can "call them like they see 'em" and not have their vision on the ground colored, or their public credibility undermined, by personal sympathies or political entanglements.
Baseball is not alone. According to the National Association of Sports Officials, which includes referees and umpires in professional and college hockey, basketball, football, as well as baseball, sports officials recognize that anything which "may lead to a conflict of interest, either real or apparent, must be avoided. Gifts, favors, special treatment, privileges, employment or a personal relationship with a school or team which can compromise the perceived impartiality of officiating must be avoided."
The ethical storm clouds floating over the Supreme Court today began to form when several Justices forgot these basic lessons, stepped outside of their proper judicial roles and engaged in professional, social, political and fundraising activities with political partisans and ideological factions directly involved in Supreme Court litigation or committed to particular judicial and legislative outcomes.
None of these departures from ethical norms at times when the Supreme Court was hearing and deciding cases would be tolerated for a moment in major league baseball, or football or soccer or tennis, all of which impose strict rules of neutrality and objectivity on umpires and referees who must credibly judge players and teams over the course of the season.
In short, the decision by several justices to step off the bench and participate in political activities with ideological partisans promoting specific ideas about corporate rights, federal preemption, tort reform, punitive damages, the unitary executive and other hot legal and political topics compromises their proper role as credible neutral arbiters of the law. Of all the jurists in our federal system, only those who sit on the Supreme Court receive the honor of being called "Justice," and that is precisely what they are supposed to seek without regard to partisan favor or the currents of political opinion.
Given the love of baseball in America, the judge/umpire analogy -- with the help of a few Supreme Court justices -- has taken firm hold in the public imagination and in Congressional confirmation hearings for judges at all levels. Ironically, our Supreme Court justices, many of them die-hard baseball fans, need to think a little bit harder about what they can learn from the analogy they so casually invoke. Umpires don't party with the teams, they don't hunt with the players, and they don't mix up their politics or their finances with the fair conduct of the game.