Guest columnist Robert Meeropol: Our heroic judge, calling out justices  

By ROBERT MEEROPOL

Published: 07-28-2023 4:31 PM

Western Massachusetts’ senior U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor had an important opinion piece published in The New York Times on Sunday, July 16. The essence of his essay is that the Supreme Court justices’ ethical conduct doesn’t pass the smell test.

I’m not unbiased. As a law student in the 1980s, I clerked for Judge Ponsor and have had several friendly conversations with him over the ensuing decades.

Many of us are familiar with recent ethical lapses by Supreme Court justices. As Judge Ponsor wrote, “Lavish no cost vacations? Hypertechnical arguments about how a free private airplane flight is a kind of facility? A justice’s spouse prominently involved in advocating on issues before the court without the justice’s recusal? Repeated omissions in mandatory financial disclosure statements brushed under the rug as inadvertent? A justice’s taxpayer-financed staff reportedly helping to promote her books? Private school tuition for a justice’s family member covered by a wealthy benefactor?”

I’ve read these stories with growing disgust, but without much surprise. Judge Ponsor wrote “the reported behavior of some justices is about ethics, not politics,” but the political context in which these lapses occurred cannot be ignored.

How can we overlook the political maneuvering that generated the deceptive performance of Supreme Court nominees during their confirmation hearings? Why should we be shocked by their post-appointment unethical behavior when there is substantial evidence that at least two Supreme Court justice’s perjured themselves when testifying at their confirmation hearings?

How can we expect high ethical standards from other justices, who eagerly sought to occupy Supreme Court seats gained through partisan violations of the spirit of the confirmation process?

Judge Ponsor points out that there are “540 magistrate judges, 670 district judges, [and] 180 appeals court judges,” but before his opinion piece how many of them have made a peep about the rot at the top of their bureaucracy? These are men and women whose job it is to sit in judgment over unethical and illegal behavior. Ugly words and phrases like hypocrisy and intellectual cowardice come to mind when I consider their silence.

One of our society’s crucial recent realizations is that silence in the face of police misconduct, racist, homophobic, and transgender attacks is complicity in those wrongs. Can the same now be said about all but one of the 1,390 judges mentioned in the Times piece? As far as I know only Judge Michael Ponsor has broken this morally bankrupt code of judicial silence.

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It is time to recognize that decay in the federal judiciary goes beyond the Supreme Court.

But if recognition of the problem begins the process of correction, then Judge Michael Ponsor deserves our thanks for getting the ball rolling. I hope there are others who will find their courage and join him.

Robert Meeropol is a Northampton resident and the founder of the Easthampton-based Rosenberg Fund for Children.

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