"Under no circumstance shall a judge accept a gift, bequest, or favor if the donor is a party whose interests have come or are reasonably likely to come before the judge."-- Judicial Canon 4D(5)
The California Code of Judicial Ethics is pretty clear about judges eschewing gifts. But what if the gift recipient is not a judge but the whole judicial branch? And what if the gift isn't a tchotchke but a much-needed $20 million?
On Thursday, most Judicial Council members seemed pretty giddy about billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong's eight-figure offer of cash and services to help install the Court Case Management System. And who could blame them? The state isn't exactly showering the courts with money these days.
No one questioned, at least not publicly, whether such a generous gift (the council is calling it a "grant") might spawn some ethical dilemmas for the branch. Those who quietly put the preliminary deal together insist there are no strings attached. But Soon-Shiong is, by all accounts, a brilliant, wealthy businessman who has a lot of interests -- financial and otherwise. What happens the next time Soon-Shiong or a company of his winds up in court? (Medical device developers never get sued, do they?)
If, as expected, the Judicial Council approves a letter of intent today, branch negotiators will have 12 weeks to draft a final agreement with Soon-Shiong. Presumably, the two parties could hash out conflict concerns then.
The whole issue is reminiscent of California's on-again off-again dalliance with selling state-owned buildings, including the Supreme Court complex, to private investors. Reporters and judges have joked about imagined corporate sponsorships like Justice by Jack-in-the-Box or Coca-Cola Courthouse. Maybe the state's dire budget cuts have infused those whimsies with a little more reality.
The Judicial Council is scheduled to discuss Soon-Shiong's CCMS offer at approximately 11:20 today.