Legal Ethics

Federal appeals judges failed to recuse themselves for financial conflicts of interest, study finds

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More than a dozen judges on the U.S. circuit courts sat on panels deciding cases in which they had financial interest in one of the parties, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

In reviewing financial disclosures of 255 of the 258 judges on the 13 appellate circuits, covering the most recent three-year period, the CPI investigation found that in 24 cases, 16 judges owned or controlled stock in companies involved in the litigation. Two others had financial interest in law firms involved. Some judges had conflicts in more than one case.

In 2006, the Judicial Conference of the United States adopted a policy requiring that all federal courts use automatic screening to find such conflicts of interest, based on required financial disclosures by judges. However, “the database is only as good as the information provided by the judges,” the Associated Press reports.

When told of the conflicts, all of the judges wrote to the parties involved to apprise them of the conflicts. The parties then could object to the judges having been involved and it would be up to the full appeals court to decide whether to re-hear the matters with new panels. The AP did not report any such complaints.

Several judges blamed inattention for their failure to recuse themselves from cases.

“Considering the importance of judicial integrity and avoidance of conflict of interest, I don’t think it is asking too much of a judge to expect him or her to know what his or her holdings are,” William G. Ross, a professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, told McClatchy DC News.

In one example, the Associated Press reports that Judge James Hill of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sat on a panel that affirmed a verdict favoring Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit concerning a defective medication pump. The judge owned as much as $100,000 in Johnson & Johnson stock.

David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, told the Associated Press that human error was behind the failures to note the conflicts of interest. Sellers pointed out that the number of cases in the report was a fraction of the 109,000 cases decided by federal appeals courts the past three years.

CPI has made a searchable database available which shows the most recent financial disclosures made by federal appellate judges for the 13 circuits, as well as the Federal Circuit Court and the D.C. Circuit Court.

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