One Law for Me, One Law for Thee: The Federal Judiciary Edition

The Wall Street Journal had a report describing how 131 federal judges–around fourteen percent of the total–failed to recuse themselves lawsuits involving firms in which they or their family held shares (boldface mine):

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.

While I can be pretty cynical (who, me?), I think the bias in their rulings has to do more with a corporation-friendly, conservative judiciary than outright corruption.

Then again, it doesn’t matter what I think, because what they did is illegal:

Nothing bars judges from owning stocks, but federal law since 1974 has prohibited judges from hearing cases that involve a party in which they, their spouses or their minor children have a “legal or equitable interest, however small.” That law and the Judicial Conference of the U.S., which is the federal courts’ policy-making body, require judges to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Although most lawsuits don’t directly affect a company’s stock price, the Supreme Court in 1988 said the law’s purpose is to promote confidence in the judiciary.

This isn’t ‘the appearance of impropriety.’ It is improper–and more accurately, illegal–activity. So, of course, dozens of judges have resigned as a consequence, and Chief Justice Roberts, who oversees the federal courts, has stepped in and… STOP LAUGHING! STOP LAUGHING NOW:

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…

The findings “are both surprising and disappointing,” said Timothy Batten Sr., chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and a member of the Committee on Codes of Conduct for the Judicial Conference of the U.S.

I believe in the vast majority of these cases, it is an oversight and indolence,” he added.

Judge Batten himself owned shares of JPMorgan Chase & Co. while he heard 11 lawsuits involving the bank, most of which ended in the bank’s favor, the Journal’s analysis shows.

“I am mortified,” Judge Batten said in a phone interview when notified about his violations, which occurred in 2010 and 2011, before he joined the Codes of Conduct committee in 2019. “I had no idea that I had an interest in any of these companies in what was a most modest retirement account” managed by a broker.

“I just blew it. I regret any question that I’ve created or appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest,” he said.

I have no idea how these judges rule, but, given the nature of the U.S. judiciary, at least some of them probably are sympathetic to the ‘hang ’em high’ school of sentencing. How many of these judges would accept these sorts of excuses from the defendants who appear before them?

When I refer to our broken systems of governance, this is what I’m referring to: one law for me, and one law for thee.

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1 Response to One Law for Me, One Law for Thee: The Federal Judiciary Edition

  1. Art says:

    Fire all of them. Investigate all the rest.

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