Local panel takes aim at Jewish ethics in legal world

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When one hears about a politician, a judge and a lawyer, it's usually a joke about a boat that's ready to sink.

But when San Francisco Supervisor Leslie Katz, criminal defense attorney Ephraim Margolin and retired Judge David Rothman recently shared a platform, they weren't there to discuss circling sharks.

They instead focused on a much headier subject — "Jewish Ethics in Law and Government. Where Is It?" In last month's forum sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the trio discussed the role Jewish ethics plays in their decision-making and work life.

While all spoke loftily about the importance of their Jewish values in their work, their responses to some of the audience's questions showed that sometimes those values don't play out in the real world.

For 20 years, Rothman sat on the Los Angeles Superior Court bench. For the past 18 years, he has been teaching new judges there about judicial ethics. He often looks to Jewish sources for his ethics course.

"Let justice well up as a mighty stream," Rothman said, quoting from the Bible.

In his course, he also shows a clip from the classic 1947 movie about anti-Semitism, "Gentleman's Agreement," to illustrate why it is important to speak out against injustice.

In one scene, a non-Jew tells a Jew about an anti-Semitic joke told at a party. Although the non-Jews says how disgusted she and others were by the joke, when asked what she did, she admitted, "We all just sat there."

"I ask the judges their reaction and the last time they did such a thing," Rothman said. "It [takes] courage to do the right thing even if it costs you everything you have."

Rothman talked about judicial integrity and honesty. He wants all judges to have the courage to make hard or unpopular decisions and to not be swayed by either government or the populace. Referring to the Book of Leviticus, Rothman said judges have to do "an honest job and not be influenced by the person in front of you."

When asked about judges who verbally abuse or embarrass lawyers in court, Rothman said that other "judges have an obligation to do something about it," such as reporting the conduct to the appropriate agency or talking to the offending judge. But when asked whether he had ever taken any action against another judge, Rothman couldn't recall ever having done so.

And when asked — obviously by another lawyer in the crowd — whether he would sanction a lawyer for citing a court's unpublished decision, Rothman said he probably wouldn't unless "I didn't like what [the lawyer] was doing [and then] I'd probably cite him."

When his turn came, Margolin pointed out that in Israel, where he was born, judges are not elected; they are appointed. And anyone who asks to be a judge doesn't get appointed.

Referring to the Bible, Margolin raised such questions as "Am I my brother's keeper?"

"That is a basic theme of Judaism. But how do you define brother? Central Americans? Palestinians?" he said. Looking at the Passover declaration of "whoever is hungry come and eat at my table," he asked who was included in that invitation.

Katz concurred that her Jewish upbringing influences her to focus on issues affecting the environment, family and civil rights. While she tries to approach social problems with compassion, she acknowledged that it often comes down to balancing competing interests with limited funding.

"Whoever is hungry come to my table" may be a worthy concept, she said, but if San Francisco raises general assistance benefits significantly, it will "attract people from neighboring counties." That, in turn, will give rise to a whole new set of problems as well as drain money from other programs.

Using Katz and Rothman, neither of whom has ever practiced criminal law, Margolin did a bit of role-playing. He said he had just shot someone in front of the office and asked the other panelists if they would represent him and keep the gun in their safe. Although both were concerned about the ethics of taking the gun, neither suggested calling 911 to get help for the victim.

As Margolin pointed out, the situation presents an ethical conflict.

On one hand there may be a dying person outside who needs medical attention. But on the other, calling either the police or an ambulance could be acting against the client's interest and a violation of the attorney-client relationship.

"It's very easy to talk about rules," Margolin said, "but they are difficult to live by."