Hanging with the Justices at the SOTU Mixer

President Obama gave his second State of the Union address Tuesday before a joint session of Congress.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:23 PM

Six Supreme Court justices attended President Obama's State of the Union mixer Tuesday night - all the members but Samuel A. Alito Jr. (who's in Hawaii), Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., despite his expressed concerns about a "political pep rally" with lawmakers "cheering and hollering" while the court just sits there "expressionless," nevertheless headed, sans pompoms, across First Street to attend.

Too late to do anything for this year, but the justices might want to follow the new bipartisan model and not huddle stone-faced all by themselves in the first row. Rather, they could mingle with folks from other branches of government.

This year, for example, Justice Elena Kagan, who barred the military from Harvard because of "don't ask, don't tell," could have been put next to the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos, who has been the most outspoken advocate of keeping the policy.

Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who retired from the Senate last year, could be invited back to sit with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg attended the 2009 speech shortly after she disclosed she had pancreatic cancer. She said she went partly as a response to Bunning, who had said she had "bad cancer" and might not be around much longer. She said she wanted folks "to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I'd be dead within nine months."

You could bring down Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who failed to get Senate confirmation for his own federal judgeship, to sit next to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom he voted against. Vice President Biden probably wouldn't want to leave his seat, but maybe Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would sit with Roberts. Both of them voted against Roberts's confirmation. (As did Obama.)

Sail away . . .

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the government last summer over the "no-fly" list, claiming that U.S. citizens on the list who are stranded abroad have been, in effect, exiled.

The suit, on behalf of a group of citizens barred from flying home, says the policy, which provides no way for those on the list to appeal, is unconstitu-tional.

Au contraire, the Justice Department responds in a recent filing in federal court in Oregon. Being put on the list does not amount to banishment or exile, the government contends, because those on the no-fly can still go by air from, say, Yemen, to Europe and then hop a cargo ship to the States.

Can't be done? Yes, it can, says an affidavit filed by Justice Department paralegal Sharon M. Raya, who "conducted extensive internet research and contacted various travel agencies to analyze the ability of U.S. citizens to return . . . by means other than flying through U.S. airspace."

And you needn't sit in a hot engine room on the 16-day voyage across the Atlantic. The accommodations aren't the Ritz, but the ships have single or double rooms with private baths, refrigerators "and electronic entertainment devices such as televisions and stereos," the affidavit said. Satellite reception is probably excellent - and essential if the crews don't speak English. "Most passenger-carrying transatlantic cargo ships," we're told, "are equipped with exercise rooms and pools, and passengers often dine with the crew."

Raya, in her sworn affidavit, said she called a travel agency and talked "with an individual who introduced himself as 'Mike' in the reservations department." This Mike fellow said a one-way ticket from Bremerhaven, Germany, would be from $100 to $140 per day for the 16-day trip. Add some port taxes and insurance and U.S. immigration fees and you're only talking $1,900 to $2,500. They'll probably take plastic.

Okay, first you have to get to Bremerhaven (or Liverpool or wherever). You can do that for as little as $564 from Yemen and $663 from Saudi Arabia, the affidavit says. Of course, you could have flown, if you weren't on the no-fly list, from Yemen or Saudi Arabia to New York for close to that amount, so you're effectively paying a fine for being on the list. (Too bad about that nonrefundable ticket you bought.)

Oh, and since you might have to book a couple of months in advance, you'll have to pay for food and lodging while you wait - unless you're in a Yemeni lockup, which you definitely don't want to be. Please note, one shipping line says, that "special diets cannot be accommodated."

Next, bargain booking on the Queen Mary 2 and tips on single-handing across the Atlantic.

Contracts and contacts

Civilian contractors in Iraq have been under investigation for years for overbilling, underperforming, and all manner of mis-, mal- and non-feasance.

Now it appears the new military team providing infrastructure and contracting for support services - housing, water, electricity - to thousands of U.S. military and civilians at the Victory Base Complex (VBC) in Baghdad is putting its troops on notice to not be seen palling around with contractors.

There will be no "off-duty fraternization or socializing with VBC contractors," Col. Guy Thomas, the commanding officer, said in a memorandum issued shortly after the brigade arrived in Baghdad last month.

"In order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, limit conflicts of interest" and such, Thomas decreed, there will be, "effective immediately," no "off-duty, unofficial fraternization or socializing with civilian contractors and their employees."

That means no "meeting at private establishments" or private quarters," he explained, nor "engaging in romantic relationships with contractors or their employees . . . no gifts or favors from contractors regardless of the value."

Doesn't mean you can't be at least civil or have "brief, casual conversations with contractors" when you see them in public or at the gym, Thomas explained. And you can go to a contractor-owned restaurant or other business - just don't take any freebies.

You know, if some of the fun-loving employees in the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service - home to a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity," a 2008 IG report said - had followed that advice, maybe the Gulf of Mexico would look better today.

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