A question of ethics and optics

A question of ethics and optics
(File photo)

The American public’s trust in government at all levels continues to erode year after year. This is not Republicans versus Democrats; people on both sides of our political divide have their own reasons for having less faith in our governing institutions than in years past. 

In Alexandria, the topic of ethics surfaces as a key issue from time to time. 

Most recently, ethics was a focal point of Allison Silberberg’s successful run for mayor in 2015, and it was the first initiative she attempted to pass when she took office in 2016. Her attempt at comprehensive ethics reform in Alexandria failed for lack of support on the dais, leaving many residents disappointed with the substitute toothless version that ultimately passed. 

Silberberg had a policy of not accepting money from developers who frequently brought proposals before City Council, and of recusing herself on votes that involved proposals brought before Council by donors. Her successor, current Mayor Justin Wilson, has accepted money from developers and usually, though not always, recuses himself from votes involving proposals brought before Council by donors. 

Silberberg’s predecessor, four-term Mayor Bill Euille, accepted campaign contributions from developers and seldom recused himself from votes involving donors, although he did sometimes announce prior to a vote that he had received a donation from the entity before Council. 

It’s not only publicly elected officials who face ethics scrutiny. Judges also, or perhaps especially, need to do everything possible to maintain the public’s trust. 

There has been considerable scrutiny in recent years of members of the U.S. Supreme Court, who are appointed by the president and voted on by the U.S. Senate. While some of the current consternation seems politically motivated, the underlying need for our judges to be beyond reproach is real. 

The need to not have even a hint of conflict of interest is also real at the Virginia Circuit Court level. 

Alexandria’s three judges in the 18th District of the Virginia Circuit Court – Chief Judge Lisa B. Kemler, Judge James C. Clark and Judge Kathleen M. Uston – were all elected by a vote of Virginia’s General Assembly. Kemler is in her 20th year on the bench in Alexandria, Clark is in his 13th year and Uston is in her third year. 

All three judges previously practiced law in Alexandria, and Kemler and Clark are graduates of T.C. Williams High School, now known as Alexandria City High School. Kemler was previously a trial lawyer, Clark worked at a land-use firm and, after leaving her Alexandria law firm, Uston prosecuted lawyers for alleged ethical violations in her post with the Virginia State Bar. 

All three seem capable and competent. Yet there’s a disturbing trend among Alexandria’s Circuit Court judges – particularly Kemler – of not recusing themselves from cases involving the City of Alexandria and of repeatedly ruling that residents lack standing to sue the city. 

We think the fact that the City of Alexandria budget contains a line item that reads “Circuit Court Judges” to the tune of $1,776,710 in the fiscal year 2024 budget – and has supported the 18th Circuit Court at a similar level for many years – provides a clear conflict of interest to Kemler, Clark and Uston when cases brought by residents against the City of Alexandria come before the court. 

Alexandria’s Circuit Court judges should follow the example set by their counterparts on the bench in Arlington County and recuse themselves from litigation involving their governmental financial supporters. 

The concept of not being or appearing beholden to financial backers is the same for judges as it is for politicians. And judges, who in Virginia are not politicians, should adhere to an even higher ethical standard. 

Our 18th Circuit Court judges should say “No thanks” when asked to rule on litigation involving the City of Alexandria.