Neal Milner: Powerful People Get Away With Bad Things Because No One Stops Them - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz show how officials get away with questionable behavior.

In S.A. Crosby’s new novel about murders in a rural Virginia county, the medical examiner asks Sheriff Titus Crown why people do bad things.

Crown doesn’t waste any words: “Because they like it. Because they can.”

Let’s not waste words either. That also explains why Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz do what they do.

Thomas’s and Dela Cruz’s desires are very strong while the restraints that might limit their desires are very weak.

Because He Likes It: Clarence Thomas

Thomas loves the fact that his influence on the court has grown so much. For a long time on the court, Thomas was isolated with marginalized conservative views. No longer.

But what Thomas likes goes deeper.

He has developed a wide network of super-rich, conservative and influential friends. This network has become extraordinarily important to him, really the center of his life.

FILE - Associate Justice Clarence Thomas joins other members of the Supreme Court as they pose for a new group portrait, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 7, 2022. Thomas said Friday, April 7, that he was not required to disclose the many trips he and his wife took that were paid for by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. The nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica reported Thursday that Thomas, who has been a justice for more than 31 years, has for more than two decades accepted luxury trips from Crow nearly every year.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas likes having a network of rich and influential conservative friends. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/2022)

They’ve taken him on expensive vacations that he could never afford by himself. They’ve allowed him to expand his contacts and horizons from an isolated Supreme Court justice with a small network of fellow Black conservatives to a much wider network of people who admire and vindicate him.

His involvement with the Horatio Alger Association is the culmination. Thomas is a very active member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a national organization honoring outstanding Americans who have bootstrapped to overcome adversity, exactly how the justice sees himself.

Thomas has received one of Horatio Alger’s annual Distinguished American awards.

He has allowed the organization to use the Supreme Court facilities. Members of that organization have defended him publicly and used their wealth to produce material that put Thomas in a favorable light.

This networking is controversial. According to his critics, these ethical violations among others involve conflicts of interest and special favors granted by people whose corporations occasionally have cases before the Court.

Whatever else these connections do for the justice and he does in return, they reinforce and support the story he tells about himself and give him political and emotional shelter.

Because He Likes It: Donovan Dela Cruz

You don’t have to go deep to see why Sen. Dela Cruz does what he does. He likes getting what he wants, especially stuff for his district, big stuff like a multimillion-dollar law enforcement academy.

A recent Civil Beat article is a great compilation of how Dela Cruz operates.

He doesn’t mind bending rules and skirting norms. As chair of the Senate’s big money committee, he’s accused of refusing to fund a senator’s project unless that legislator votes his way.

He likes having a network of people that he can use to help him. Over the years, there have been webs of connections among the Dela Cruz, key executive agencies, the agribusiness, and technology developers.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz doesn’t mind bending rules and skirting norms. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

Because He Can: Clarence Thomas

The accusations against Justice Thomas fall into a gray area where it is easy to shout “sleaze” but hard to prove there is a violation.

All those discussions about how unethical and unlawful a person Thomas is — love them or hate them — are, as a law professor might put it, hypotheticals. They may persuade you, but suasion alone has no teeth. In order for them to go from hypothetical to real, people in authority have to act. The legal process is not just about doctrine. Someone needs to do something with the law.

That’s not happening.

How about ethics? The Supreme Court has no effective code of ethics. Chief Justice John Roberts has refused an invitation from a Senate investigating committee to talk about judicial ethics, effectively saying that because of the separation of powers, it’s none of Congress’s business.

The Supreme Court is made up of a small group of justices who like any small group, rely mostly on norms to maintain cohesiveness and mutual respect and, in their eyes, legitimacy. It’s up to the justices to decide whether to recuse themselves from hearing a case.

No rules. Small groups like the Court don’t like rules. They prefer norms like mutual respect and trust even when the Court is very divided. Very liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and very conservative Justice Antonin Scalia were besties — that’s the role model.

Norms don’t work very well when someone violates them because there are not easy internal ways to handle this. Absent these informal ways of regulating one another, there is no backup, especially because there is no formal code of ethics.

Because He Can: Donovan Dela Cruz

The senator can act the way he does because the Senate’s rules allow it. So do its norms.

Dela Cruz is, in University of Hawaii political scientist Colin Moore’s words, “just playing the game aggressively, within the rules.”

Dela Cruz, like Thomas, is a boundary crosser and norms-stretcher, and, as we saw with Thomas, an institution’s willingness to sanction a norms-stretcher is iffy.

Senate norms don’t just tolerate his aggressiveness They even reward it by keeping the bad behavior an open secret. Legislators don’t like to talk about it.

Is Dela Cruz violating the law? One critic has suggested it, but again the legal argument is hypothetical and sure to stay that way unless some agency with the legal authority to act moves ahead.

No sign that that’s going to happen. Courts are very cautious about telling the Legislature how to do its business. Litigation is corruption hardball, and given their recent track record, the state’s legal institutions are in the minors.

The only successful restraints on Dela Cruz have been political. The Legislature repealed the law creating one of the senator’s pet agencies, the Public Land Development Corp., because legislative leaders thought it went too far.

Dela Cruz, however, has found other ways to do the same thing.

Gov. Josh Green vetoed a bill that would have used the back door to grant funds for
the law enforcement academy that the Legislature has refused to fund.

And for many reasons — some good, some bad, and some frustratingly understandable — the bad behavior beat goes on.

And in an unusual move, eight Democratic legislators voted against the budget, mainly because of all the hanky-panky and hocus-pocus that they blame on their leadership and on legislative rules that allow for influential committee heads to hijack the process.

Too soon to tell whether that’s the beginning of something bigger.

Sheriff Crown is right. His explanation cuts to the chase. It puts all the fulminating and legalistic inside-baseball arguments in their proper place.

Titus Crown’s words remind us that claiming that a person is morally or ethically wrong may be a way to get something off your chest but has real meaning only if something is done about it.

Most of all, the sheriff reminds us that bad behavior does not simply result from the urges of bad people. For bad behavior to happen, it needs a context of individuals and institutions that can’t or won’t stop the behavior.

And for many reasons — some good, some bad, and some frustratingly understandable — the bad behavior beat goes on.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

One correction. The Public Land Development Corporation was repealed only by an outraged public that was paying attention. Abercrombie and legislators were forced to blink and seceded to voter demands. Only 6? sane legislators voted against the PLDC bill before it became law.Now we've got mini PLDCs breaking out like teenaged pimples.

808hawaii808 · 2 months ago

Not particularly a fan of Dela Cruz or his pet projects, but every elected official can and should try to get as many services and projects funded for their district. It's their job! It's why Dan Inouye is revered to this day. Is it somehow surprising or "corrupt" that the chair of the money committee is a powerful person among his or her colleagues? Unless someone proposes some realistic alternative to committee process and purviews for legislation, all this complaining about money committee or other chairs of having "too much" power is just whining and sour grapes. Some committees will have broader purview than others. Their chairpersons will have more cards at the table in many discussions. Welcome to the legislative process.

king2804 · 2 months ago

Thinking we already have term limits. Theyʻre called elections.Too bad people donʻt vote. And if they do, they vote emotions rather than policy.Until voters wake up, people like DDC will rule.

Patutoru · 2 months ago

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