Wikipedia defines ethics as A branch of philosophy that involves systemizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. Alabama citizens in general, and the Alabama legal community in particular, can take pride in the fundamental role Alabama played in the development of modern-day codes of ethics across many disciplines.
Thomas Goode Jones, a nineteenth-century railroad builder, lawyer, politician, and Civil War hero, wrote our nation’s first code of legal ethics, which was adopted by the Alabama State Bar Association in 1887 and the American Bar Association in 1908. Every state bar association in the nation has now followed suit with a Code of Professional Conduct based on Jones’ original work. Jones went on to become Governor of Alabama in 1890, and his name lives on at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama.
As drafted and revised throughout the last 150 years, ethics rules expand on the foundational and timeless Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rules, through prescription and proscription, provide for truthfulness, honesty, integrity, fair treatment of colleagues, adversaries, and clients alike, and respectful decorum toward the institutions of government and society at large.
The principles embedded in legal ethics now drive the ethical codes employed by all levels of government, private and public businesses, charities, trade groups, and associations, both civic and industry-based, throughout the country.
The U. S. Office of Government Ethics was created by Congress in 1978. It describes appropriate behavior by federal officials and, using many of the precepts put forth in Jones’ original 1887 work, contains a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts regarding conflicts of interest, payments to and from officials, truthfulness, and respect for the rule of law.
In 1973, the Alabama Legislature established the Alabama Ethics Commission, which provides mandatory ethics training for newly elected and appointed state officials, with enforcement powers that can ensure its rules are followed. Violations can result in removal from office as well as criminal prosecution. The rules were updated in a special session of the Alabama Legislature in December 2010, to tighten ethical restrictions on government officials, including interactions with lobbyists.
Business schools in our universities and colleges now require courses in business ethics. Various industry associations, including the health care industry, have requested and received legislation establishing licensing rules which can suspend or revoke business licenses for its practitioners who fail to follow ethical guidelines.
In recent years, our dedication to the sanctity of our rules regarding ethical conduct, especially on the part of government officials, has been tested by news-making developments at the state and federal levels. Governor Bob Riley, the very governor who called the special session in 2010, has seen his integrity questioned regarding the laundering of Indian Casino money for political purposes and regarding meddling by himself and members of his family, again for political purposes, in criminal prosecutions, both state and federal, of political opponents.
The Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives who shepherded the 2010 ethics legislation, Rep. Mike Hubbard, was prosecuted and convicted of violating the same rules he helped enact, and now faces a lengthy prison term. Governor Robert Bentley, Riley’s successor, was forced to resign after admitting to serious ethical violations after he took office. Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was forced out of office for the second time for failing to follow edicts of the U.S Supreme Court regarding the Constitutional prohibitions against the mingling of church and state.
At the federal level, Walter Shaub, the Chief of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, resigned in disgust, saying there was nothing he could accomplish facing the intransigence and total disregard of ethical behavior at the highest levels of the Donald J. Trump administration. And within the last few days, the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., has confessed to meeting with representatives of a hostile foreign power, Russia, to obtain valuable information his father could use against political opponent Hillary Clinton, a violation of several federal laws, possibly including treason.
And to come full circle, that same Donald Trump, Jr., is scheduled to be, provided he is not by then in prison, the featured speaker on October 5, 2017, at the Faulkner University Annual Dinner and fundraiser, following previous ethically-challenged speakers like Sarah Palin and Rudolph Giuliani. Ironically, Faulkner University is the owner of the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law.
Certainly, the subterranean uproar created by the spinning in their graves of Governor Jones, along with the leading lawyers and legislators of yesterday who recognized and adopted his work, and our nation’s founders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin, is now sending farm animals and seismologists alike scrambling in alarm.
One can only hope that the public, led once again by Alabamians of all stripes, is also alarmed and finally ready to say: “No more!”