March 2007 Ethics Dunces

Judge Larry Seidlin

Anna Nicole Smith was a kind of "Typhoid Mary" for unethical conduct. Her presence mysteriously activated a slumbering gene for outrageous conduct in each person she met, no matter how sensible and ethical they had been before. The bizarre, unfortunate and rare power, previously manifested only be a few by politicians like Richard Nixon or business executives like Jeffrey Fastow, seemed to continue after death in Smith's case. This, as unlikely as it sounds, is Judge Larry Seidlin's best argument in defense of his embarrassing performance in the televised proceeding to determine who got custody of the Playboy fold-out's body. The more plausible explanation is that he is a disgrace to the profession, without any help from Anna Nicole.

The American Bar Association Model Rules of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.2 Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary 

A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. 

The American Bar Association Model Rules of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.8 Decorum, Demeanor, and Communication with Jurors  

(A) A judge shall require order and decorum in proceedings before the court. 

(B) A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, court staff, court officials, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers, court staff, court officials, and others subject to the judge's direction and control. 

Judge Seidlin probably has read these ethics constraints, but he certainly acted as if they didn't exist. He began the proceedings on a low note by weirdly noting that Anna Nicole's body "belongs to me now." Then he went lower. A probate judge, he expressed his discomfort over discussing burial issues. He asked the disputing parties to "join hands" like he was a Girl Scout camp counselor, and rambled on about the troops in Iraq, his exercise regimen and the attractiveness of one of the female attorneys. He interjected his idea of jokes and wisecracks over the lawyers and witnesses. He addressed attorneys by their states rather than their names, and when a man collapsed from an apparent diabetic shock, he said, "Here's my credit card. Buy him an orange juice."

Oh, the judge loved the publicity, and he got it. Love him or hate him, columnists and bloggers ate up his act. The sordid collection of characters in the Anna Nicole Smith coda---the exploitive lawyer, the feckless beach boy, the creepy prince and the "Tobacco Road" mother---begged for a presiding judge who could bring some dignity and order to what was in essence a gathering of jackals. Not Seidlin. He had other ideas.

Rule 1.3  Avoiding Abuse of the Prestige of Judicial Office 

A judge shall not abuse the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so. 

Rule 2.1 Giving Precedence to the Duties of Judicial Office 

The duties of judicial office, as prescribed by law, shall take precedence over all of a judge's personal and extrajudicial activities.  

Judge Seidlin, it seems, saw the Anna Nicole Smith trial as an audition---just as a 90 year-old billionaire saw her as a living, breathing, inflatable sex toy and a means to stick it to his greedy offspring, just as E! saw her as an irresistible OD candidate willing to play out her death throes on cable TV, just as everyone around her saw a way to twist her best interests into a career, a buck, or fifteen minutes of fame for them. The judge's wife coyly used the trial to intrigue producers, telling all who would listen that "everyone" had always said that Seidlin belonged on one of those daytime judge shows And there was no question that Seidlin was playing to the cameras. He didn't care if he was criticized or disciplined, if it meant that he could be the next Judge Judy or Mills Lane. TV judges earn as much in a week as real judges earn in a year. So he was willing to undermine respect for the judicial profession at a time when he should have been trying to make himself and all judges appear dignified, competent and fair...because that's how most of them are.

The final disgrace was Seidlin's weepy reading of his decision. Judges are supposed to be independent and reasoned, not emotional. Seidlin sniffed through his edict as if he was sentencing puppies to the Cuisinart. Hey! What a title for a daytime show: "The Weeping Judge!"

But there's an even better one for Judge Seidlin's show: "The Ethics Dunce."




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