131 Federal Judges Broke the Law by Hearing Cases Where They Had a Financial Interest

More than 130 federal judges have violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that judges have improperly failed to disqualify themselves from 685 court cases around the nation since 2010. The jurists were appointed by nearly every president from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump.

About two-thirds of federal district judges disclosed holdings of individual stocks, and nearly one of every five who did heard at least one case involving those stocks.

Alerted to the violations by the Journal, 56 of the judges have directed court clerks to notify parties in 329 lawsuits that they should have recused themselves. That means new judges might be assigned, potentially upending rulings.

When judges participated in such cases, about two-thirds of their rulings on motions that were contested came down in favor of their or their family’s financial interests.

In New York, Judge Edgardo Ramos handled a suit between an Exxon Mobil Corp. unit and TIG Insurance Co. over a pollution claim while owning between $15,001 and $50,000 of Exxon stock, according to his financial disclosure form. He accepted an arbitration panel’s opinion that TIG should pay Exxon $25 million and added $8 million of interest to the tab.

In Colorado, Judge Lewis Babcock oversaw a case involving a Comcast Corp. subsidiary, ruling in its favor, while he or his family held between $15,001 and $50,000 of Comcast stock.

At an Ohio-based appeals court, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote an opinion that favored Ford Motor Co. in a trademark dispute while her husband held stock in the auto maker. After she and the others on the three-judge appellate panel heard arguments but before they ruled, her husband’s financial adviser bought two chunks of Ford stock, each valued at up to $15,000, for his retirement account, according to her disclosure form.

The hundreds of recusal violations found by the Journal breach a bedrock principle of American jurisprudence: No one should be a judge of his or her own cause. Congress first laid out that principle in 1792 to guarantee litigants an impartial judge and reassure the public that courts could be trusted.

Judge Ramos, who oversaw the Exxon case, was unaware of his violation, said an official of the New York federal court, because his “recusal list”—a tally judges keep of parties they shouldn’t have in their courtrooms—listed only parent Exxon Mobil Corp. and not the unit, whose name includes the additional word “oil.” The official said the court conflict-screening software relied on exact matches.

The unit had informed the court at the outset of the case that it was a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil so Judge Ramos could “evaluate possible disqualification or recusal,” a court filing shows.

After the Journal contacted Judge Ramos, who was named to the court by former President Barack Obama, the court’s clerk notified the parties of his stockholding. TIG attorneys asked the court to set aside his ruling and send the case to a new judge because of “the inevitable appearance of partiality.” Exxon opposed assigning a new judge, calling that a “manifest unfairness, gross inefficiency, and waste of judicial resources.” An appellate court has put a hearing on hold until the district court decides what to do.

In the Comcast case, a Colorado couple asked Judge Babcock to issue an order blocking Comcast from accessing their property to install fiber-optic cable. Representing themselves in court, Andrew O’Connor and Mary Henry accused Comcast workers of bullying them, scaring their 10-year-old daughter and injuring their dog, Einstein, allegations the company denied. Judge Babcock, who was appointed to the court by former President Ronald Reagan, ruled the couple had “continually blocked Comcast’s access to the easement.” He sent the case back to state court, as Comcast wanted.

“I dropped the ball,” Judge Babcock said when asked about the recusal violation. He blamed flawed internal procedures. “Thank you for helping me stay on my toes the way I’m supposed to,” he said. A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment.

Mr. O’Connor, who settled his case in state court, said, “If you are a federal judge, you should not be holding individual stocks.”

Judge Gibbons from the Ford trademark case, appointed to the appeals court by former President George W. Bush, said she had mistakenly believed a holding in her husband’s retirement account didn’t require her recusal. She later directed the clerk of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to notify the parties of the violation and said that her husband has since told his financial adviser not to buy individual stocks.

“I regret my misunderstanding, but I assure you it was an honest one,” she said.

A spokesman for Ford said: “A fair and impartial judiciary is critical to the integrity of our legal system. In this case, the violation of Ford’s trademarks was clear.”

Source: Wall Street Journal

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