Buried in my blog entry on the Louisiana legislators' attempt to undermine recusal on constitutional grounds is a short discussion of what I refer to as 'the public-interested side' of recusal. I would like to talk a little more about this, because I think the failure to discuss it enough is a serious problem.
When a government official has a conflict of interest, he or she is forced to choose between conflicting obligations. We all have this problem every day: for example, do I spend more time with my son, or my daughter, or my wife, or my work?
Government officials are a special case, because they have a fiduciary obligation. Other professional have a similar obligation, but governmental officials' obligation is not just to clients or patients or their boss, but to the public. They are required to act only in the public interest, not in their personal interest, or in the interest of their family members or their business associates or friends.
The emphasis in conflict of interest discussions is on government officials who put their personal interests ahead of the public interest. But there is another side of the coin: government officials who put the public interest ahead of their personal interests. What do ethics laws have to offer to the good guys, to those who favor the public interest? What they have to offer is the ability to say, I can't be involved with this because I have a conflict of interest. Ethics laws allow thoughtful, ethical officials the right not to have to choose, the right not to have to reject their brother-in-law's zoning application, their sister's job application, their wife's boss's request for a no-bid contract.
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