Rehnquist's Scandalous Shmatte

Political commentary and more.
June 29 2000 8:30 PM

Rehnquist's Scandalous Shmatte

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The Associated Press reports that Chief Justice William Rehnquist has given the Smithsonian Institution the robe--the one with the ridiculous yellow stripes on the sleeves--that he wore while presiding over President Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate. Rehnquist valued the donation at $30,000, according to his 1999 financial disclosure form. How does he know the value? He had it appraised by Sotheby's!

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Hmmm. Did Rehnquist actually take a tax deduction for the $30,000 donation? The AP reported that "the chief justice did not respond when asked" that question. And a Supreme Court spokesperson no-commented when queried by kausfiles. But why would Rehnquist go to the trouble of having Sotheby's appraise the robe if he didn't deduct it? (And if he didn't, you'd think he would just say he didn't, rather than refuse to comment.)

If he did deduct, it's probably perfectly legal. But isn't it a bit outrageous? What it would mean is that Rehnquist actually made a tidy profit from performing his public, constitutional duty of presiding over the impeachment of a president--a job for which he was already paid $175,400 a year by the American people. How much profit? Assuming he's in the 31 percent bracket--even $175,400 doesn't put you in the top 40 percent bracket these days--the deduction would be worth about $9,000 to him.

Keep in mind that the robe's value derives almost entirely from the notoriety conferred by Rehnquist's official position--and from its use by him in public proceedings, paid for and held on behalf of the taxpayers. Do we really want government officials, particularly judges, enriching themselves like this? Involve yourself in a controversial case, and--jackpot!--you can phone Sotheby's and start deducting. How much is Judge Ito's gavel worth? For that matter, Alan Greenspan's glasses? The tie Bill Clinton wore during his nationally-televised Flytrap "apology"? The pens Ronald Reagan used to sign his tax cuts--or that LBJ used to sign the civil rights laws?

When it comes to official papers, this sort of concern led Congress to pass a law in 1978 preventing presidents from cashing in on their public service by donating their papers to libraries and museums. The idea is that the historic value of these papers belongs to the public, not to the public servant. Rehnquist isn't president, and the robe isn't papers, so the statute doesn't apply to him, but his deduction is just as morally objectionable. More so, in one sense: A president usually has to do some work--write a speech, for example, or at least check off a box or two--in order to make a presidential document valuable. All Rehnquist had to do was get dressed and show up.

Can we agree that it's at least unseemly--reflecting either myopic financial self-pity, or just plain greed--for the chief justice of the United States to use the Senate trial of a sitting president as the occasion to grab a few extra Gs?

What's next? Selling advertising space on the chief justice's epaulets to Valvoline? Auctioning off the garments on eBay? Actually, if Rehnquist had auctioned off his robe on eBay, the taxpayers would at least have made some money on the deal, since he would have had to pay tax on his gain from the sale. (By giving appreciated property, Rehnquist--like other charitable donors--could take advantage of the tax loophole that lets him deduct the full value without ever having to declare any income or capital gain.)

Note how the Rehnquist precedent would give public officials an incentive to make outlandish visual gestures using their own, to-be-deducted-later property. Get mad and point your finger at a foreign tyrant, and what have you got? But bang your shoe on the table and you can donate and deduct the shoe! We may soon be seeing officials gratuitously brandishing gold fountain pens or outlandishly colored laser pointers during televised briefings. The sillier--and therefore more memorable--the prop, the better.

Come to think of it, how much would Rehnquist's robe have been worth if he hadn't added those embarrassing stripes (a design he'd come up with years earlier, it was reported, and that he'd modeled after a robe he had seen in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe)? What if he'd worn just a plain black judge's robe? Putting a boring, plain black robe on display in a museum wouldn't exactly draw in the crowds. But stick this cartoonish Gilbert and Sullivan shmatte behind glass and fathers will bring their children and say, "That's it. That's the crazy robe he wore." It's the stripes that make the robe distinctive--and worth $30,000.

It's a paranoid thought, I admit--but the Gilbert and Sullivan story never really did seem to fully explain those stripes, did it? They were too crazy, too undignified. There must have been something else going on, some other reason for them. Have we just found out what it was?

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