Monday, April 28, 2014

Judicial Conflicts of Interest?



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.

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.
Ok, I guess in totality that is not a lot of incidents, but it's still a concern.

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.

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.
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.

Is this a real issue or is it overblown?

What do you all think?

13 comments:

  1. It's shocking. All corporate defendants and judges who have financial interests in the businesses who come before them.

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  2. Of course it's important. The idea that a judge could be forgiven if he or she "innocently" forgets that he or she has a financial interest in a party is risible. It imposes no great burden on a judge to get this right. The remedy should be to remand the case back to the same court with a different judge or panel. Everyone will say how impractical this would be. Ask whether if it were a major corporation that got screwed instead of a paraplegic, there wouldn't be a way.

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  3. Very big mistake by Judge Hill. Every judge should have a list of companies that he must recuse on. Harmless error, however.

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  4. What's that guys name? The Supreme Court Justice who used to be a Monsanto Lawyer and now, purely by coincidence always rules in favor of Monsanto?

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  5. I agree that it is a very big mistake. That said, I just checked out the decision and noted that the ruling was unanimous, and the author of the opinion -- not that this is determinative -- was not Judge Hill. And it was an affirmance. So I generally agree with 11:16 a.m. but I think that the issue should be send back to the other judges on the original panel -- in this case, Edmonson and Alarcon, sitting by designation -- and get them to confirm that they'd rule the same way again. I'm pretty sure it takes only two appellate judges to issue a ruling.

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  6. Should be remanded back to different judges.
    But if the judge wasn't even aware that they had a holding in the company - which is feasible- depending on how finances are set up - then i don't know how it could be could be used to influence decision.
    However, Judges should be held to standard of knowing companies in order to recuse if necessary.

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  7. Of course no conflicts that would cut AGAINST big businesses.

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  8. I'm in a Shumie state of mind.

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  9. How many people know what companies their mutual funds are invested in at any given time?

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  10. Dude - it was 100k of stock - you are way off on the comparison. 100k is 100k is 100k

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    http://m.miamiherald.com/?cu=spreed%3A%2F16910329%2F33322167

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