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Fair Courts E-Lert: Investigation – 131 federal judges failed to step down from cases with financial conflicts

This Fair Courts E-Lert highlights an investigation into ethics violations committed by federal judges, Biden’s latest round of nominees to the federal bench, New York judges sent home for noncompliance with a vaccine mandate, and more.

Published: October 22, 2021

Invest­ig­a­tion Finds 131 Federal Judges Failed to Step Aside from Cases Despite Finan­cial Conflicts

“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,” accord­ing to an invest­ig­a­tion by the Wall Street Journal published on Septem­ber 28.

The invest­ig­a­tion found that 129 federal district court judges and two federal appel­late judges failed to step aside from 685 cases in which they had a finan­cial conflict from 2010–2018, and in those cases, about two-thirds of the rulings were in the judge’s or their family’s finan­cial interests.

While federal judges are not barred from hold­ing indi­vidual stocks, they are prohib­ited by both federal law and federal judi­cial ethics rules from hear­ing cases in which they, or a close family member, have a finan­cial conflict.

Demo­crats on the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee released a state­ment on Septem­ber 29 call­ing the invest­ig­a­tion’s find­ings “a massive fail­ure not just of indi­vidual judges but of the entire system that is ostens­ibly in place to prevent this illegal conduct” and announ­cing plans to intro­duce legis­la­tion and hold public hear­ings on the subject.

Pres­id­ent Biden Announces Eighth Round of Judi­cial Nomin­ees

On Septem­ber 30, Pres­id­ent Biden announced ten more federal court nomin­ees, bring­ing the admin­is­tra­tion’s total number of nomin­ees to 53. Biden also announced four nomin­ees to serve on local D.C. courts.

Biden’s eighth slate of nomin­ees includes two civil rights lawyers and three current or former public defend­ers. Several of the nomin­ees, if confirmed, would also mark historic firsts: the first Asian Amer­ican man on the West­ern District Court of Wash­ing­ton, the first Asian Amer­ican woman on the South­ern District Court of Cali­for­nia, and the first Hispanic district court judge in Ohio.

Accord­ing to CNN, more than 25% of Biden’s nomin­ees to date are Black, 21% are Hispanic or Latino, and 23% are Asian Amer­ican or Pacific Islanders. Close to 75% are women. In addi­tion, 32% of Biden’s judi­cial nomin­ees are former public defend­ers and 25% are civil rights lawyers.

Biden is confirm­ing judges at a rate faster than any other pres­id­ent at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, accord­ing to Bloomberg Law. Sixteen of Biden’s judi­cial nomin­ees have been confirmed so far.

New York Court Employ­ees Sent Home Due to Vaccine Noncom­pli­ance

On Septem­ber 28, New York State court admin­is­trat­ors sent “a number” of employ­ees home, includ­ing three judges, for fail­ing to comply with the court system’s vaccine mandate that went into effect on Septem­ber 27, accord­ing to Law360.

Law360 reports that as of 5 p.m. last Tues­day, “just over a thou­sand employ­ees had applied for either reli­gious or medical exemp­tions, and 333 people, making up about 2% of all state courts employ­ees, were not in compli­ance with the vaccine mandate.”

Over half of the 15,650-employee state court system is currently shiel­ded from the vaccine mandate as a result of lawsuits filed by half a dozen unions, accord­ing to Law360. And as of Octo­ber 6, “86% of court employ­ees have submit­ted proof of vaccin­a­tion or applied for a medical or reli­gious exemp­tion.”

One judge on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, is among the noncom­pli­ant employ­ees and has been appear­ing in court remotely. Union repres­ent­at­ives have criti­cized the “double stand­ard” that unvac­cin­ated judges are work­ing from home while other court employ­ees could be put on unpaid leave or termin­ated for their noncom­pli­ance.

New Jersey Supreme Court to Hold Confer­ence on Impli­cit Bias in Jury Selec­tion

On Septem­ber 28, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced it will hold a confer­ence in Novem­ber to study impli­cit bias in jury selec­tion, includ­ing the use of peremp­tory chal­lenges in crim­inal trials.

The confer­ence follows the high court’s July ruling in which it found “impli­cit or uncon­scious racial bias infec­ted the jury selec­tion process” in Edwin Andu­jar’s 2017 murder trial after prosec­utors ran a crim­inal back­ground check on a prospect­ive Black juror, iden­ti­fied as F.G., lead­ing to his arrest.

In that case, the trial judge rejec­ted the state’s attempt to remove F.G. for having “an awful lot of back­ground” with the crim­inal system, prompt­ing prosec­utors to run a back­ground check that revealed F.G. had an open warrant. F.G. was dismissed and arres­ted on the warrant, although an open warrant does not bar someone from jury service in New Jersey.

“Courts, not the parties, over­see the jury selec­tion process,” said the court’s unan­im­ous July ruling. “Going forward from today, any party seek­ing to run a crim­inal history check on a prospect­ive juror must first get permis­sion from the trial court.”