THE NEWS STORY was short and to the point and if you read it with any kind of social awareness the conclusion was virtually inescapable: Once again, the woman was getting a raw deal, once again her interests were being placed behind those of her husbank's. And it wasn't happening to some old-fashioned couple, to people bound by the marriage vow that stipulated the obedience clause. This was happening to A Modern Couple; specifically, to Sheila and Stephen Sachs of Baltimore.
Steve and Sheila Sachs are both lawyers, and they have two children, 11 and 13 years old. Both are working full-time as lawyers and both are active in community affairs. He is the attorney general of Maryland and she is a lawyer in private practice. He is active in politics and she is a member of the Baltimore city school board. That is, she was. She isn't any more. Sheila Sachs had to resign from the school board, and she had to resign specifically because of her husband's job.
It seems the Baltimore city school board has sued the state of Maryland over its formula for opportioning school founds. Stephen Sachs, as the state's attorney general, will be defending the state's formula, defending the state in a major suit in which his wife, as a member of the school board, would have been a plaintiff. It would have been, says Sheila Sachs, a conflict of interest.
"I would have been a party on one side. He would have been defending the party on the other side. It's very hard to suppose there would have been complete confidentiality when they (the two people) are married. Even if they don't communicate (about the case) there would have been phone calls (coming into the home), there would have been access to materials. It's somewhat suspect, I think."
She cites a canon of ethics addressing lawyers' conduct in cases in which a spouse's interests are involved. "Clearly a spouse's interest in litigation may affect his judgment," she says.
Okay. He was the attorney general and she was on the school board and there could be a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict of interest, and one of them had to resign or somehow remove himself from the case. Why her? She was on the school board before he was elected attorney general. She was there first. Was there much soul searching? Did they argue, or discuss the problem?
"It was perfectly obvious," she says. "He was the attorney general of the state, elected to that office. He couldn't resign from that office. Then it becomes a question of whether he could refrain from participating in the suit. But it's a major issue as far as the state is concerned. It would seem inappropriate that he would abdicate and pass it to someone else."
The decision, she says, "was easy. It was pretty clear that if the board members were to be plaintiffs in the case then it was clear that one or the other of us could not participate and it didn't make sense that he couldn't participate. He is head of the state law department... It was not a matter of sacrifice. One has to look at it in terms of what is his obligation to the public. It's not a simple matter for him to just pull out."
Sheila Sachs was appointed by the mayor, not elected to the school board, and it is not a salaried job. She has been active in school budget and school desegregation issues and when she resigned last month she was the member with the most seniority. "A number of people in the community expressed regrets about my resignation because I was the person on the board with the most seniority," she says, but no one faulted her decision and no one suggested that her husband resign instead.
"With public officials it isn't quite the same as having choices in the private sector. School board service is also in the public domain, but it's not the same in the you're appointed, not elected. It's a very different process and in that respect I think your obligations to the people you're serving are different.
"The entire electorate or that majority that is required to be elected puts not only its faith and confidence in you but exercises its political right to select you. It seems to me at that point you have to consider very carefully what you resign or abdicate your elected function for."
Decisions reached in Sheila Sachs' family were reached, she says, "regardless of feminist issues. It would be the reverse." The overriding consideration was to the family member's commitment to the public office he stood for and was elected to. The entire family of a politician, she says, is "sensitized to the fact that there are judgments made in the family" that might not be made if the politician were in private life.
"The whole family is going to have to give up certain things. Not just the traditional things, but certain kinds of freedoms to do certain kinds of things, just because elected office is a different vocation than any other that I can conceive of.
"When I first went on the school board, at the time he, as an attorney, represented the association of supervisors and administrators. When I was appointed to the school board he had to give up representing that client."
There are practical aspects to equality, and as more and more people from the same line of work marry, there will be professional conflicts that have to be resolved practically as well as philosophically.There will be lawyers who must avoid representing embattled parties, foremen who much figure out the problem of supervising and scheduling their spouses.
The Marion Javits case was an extreme example of a wife's job creating a conflict of interest question for her husband, and there were people who argued that she should be able to retain her job lobbying for Iran while her husbank was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because she was her own person. She and the senator led independent professional lives. Mrs. Javits quit her job, but not before there was an enormous, embarrassing fuss.
The Sacks family avoided this. They realize that there simply are going to be times when one spouse has to set his or her professional interests aside because they create a conflict of interest for the other spouse, or at least the appearance of such a conflict. They moved quickly when the situation arose in their marriage and resolved it quietly, with common sense and with decorum. No one was embarrassed, and no one got a raw deal.