The Center for Public Integrity just released this report on conflicts of interest at the federal appellate level:
When Linda Wolicki-Gables and her husband appealed a lawsuit all the way to the second-highest court in the nation against Johnson & Johnson over a malfunctioning medication pump that had been implanted in her body, the couple had no idea that one of the judges who decided their case had a financial stake in the giant multinational company.Ok, I guess in totality that is not a lot of incidents, but it's still a concern.
Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Hill owned as much as $100,000 in Johnson & Johnson stock when he and two other judges ruled against the Gables’ appeal in the precedent-setting case.
For the Gables, a different decision in the 2011 appeal could have helped them win a verdict for as much as $20 million, a sum that would have vastly improved the quality of her care, according to their attorney, T. Patton Youngblood Jr. Today, the Florida woman is a partial paraplegic, he said, largely confined to her home with only her husband to care for her.
The Center also found that Hill ruled on three other appeals involving companies in which he owned stock, violating clear rules governing the federal courts. In all four instances, the court rulings favored his financial interest. In a statement released by the court, Hill said he was not aware of those stock holdings at the time due to the complexity of his family’s trusts.
“You like to think that people will be above board but we all know that’s not the case. You can’t presume that,” said Youngblood, the Gables’ attorney. “I don’t think it’s fair that he was able to preside over this thing. I just don’t think that’s right. That’s why they ask you for disclosures so that you don’t end up presiding over cases where you have a financial or other conflict.”
The Center for Public Integrity uncovered Hill's conflicts by examining the three most recent years of financial disclosure reports filed by 255 of the 258 judges who sit on the nation’s 13 appellate circuits. In all, the Center identified 24 cases where judges owned stock in a company with a case before them. In two other instances, judges had financial ties with law firms working on cases over which they presided, bringing the total to 26 conflicts.
After the Center notified the judges of its findings, 16 judges had letters sent to the parties in all of those cases uncovered by the Center during the months-long investigation. The letters are the first step in possibly reopening the cases.
It's also interesting to hear the explanation offered:
David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in an email that while federal judges take their ethical responsibilities seriously, the more than two dozen conflicts identified by the Center are mistakes that can be attributed to human error.
“It appears that a very small number of judges inadvertently were involved in cases in which they had a financial conflict,” he wrote.Perhaps the lesson learned is that yes, "human error" happens, and to be vigilant but also tolerant when we inevitably fall short of the standards we expect for ourselves and for others. That goes for judges and litigants too.
And the judges do not rule on cases by themselves. They typically sit with at least two other judges on each case.
Sellers noted that the two dozen conflicted cases represented just 0.02 percent of the 109,000 total cases decided in the U.S. Courts of Appeals over the last three years. Some experts agreed that it’s important to analyze the Center’s findings in a larger context.
Is this a real issue or is it overblown?
What do you all think?