In David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia, a reporter asks the Hashemite Prince Faisal bin Hussein, played by Alec Guinness*, whether his refusal to retaliate for Turkish atrocities is due to the influence of British Major T. E. Lawrence. Faisal reacts with amusement. "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion," he says. "With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable."
As the prince suggests, good manners may be a better guide in times of trouble than our own impulses.
I am thinking about Faisal because of the controversy about whether Justices of the Supreme Court should attend Tuesday's State of the Union Address. As Dahlia Lithwick pointed out this weekend, the occasion puts Chief Justice John Roberts in an uncomfortable position -- either attend and expose himself to potential partisan rhetoric, or stay away and raise suspicions of partisanship.
I despise the current vogue for attributing any adverse judicial decision to "bias." I think most judges try conscientiously to apply law to facts without much regard for any effect on partisan politics; that extends to those with whom I disagree as well as to those whose opinions I find congenial.
But being a judge involves etiquette as well as integrity. Both points are covered in Canon Two of the Code of Conduct for Federal Judges: "A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities." A judge may know he or she is being fair, but others can't see the judge's heart and they must evaluate actions. And a certain sloppiness of action has lately crept over the federal bench.