Federal judges rule on cases in which they have a financial stake

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 28, 2014 

Federal appellate judges from Raleigh to Miami to Fairbanks, Alaska have ruled on cases in which they had a financial stake, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

Raleigh’s Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Allyson Duncan owned as much as $100,000 in Verizon stock when she sat on a 2011 panel that affirmed a lower court ruling in favor of Verizon South. A Verizon employee sued the company for “unlawful termination” after she was fired. It was one of two cases before her in which she ruled in Verizon’s favor.

On a third case in 2010, Duncan sat on a panel that affirmed a district court order dismissing a plaintiff’s federal civil rights lawsuit in which General Electric was named as a party. The judge’s 2010 financial disclosures found that she owned General Electric stock, as part of a trust valued at up to $5 million, the Center found.

Federal judges may not sit on cases in which they have a financial interest, according to federal law. Yet the Center found more than two dozen instances where judges have ruled on cases in which they have stock or other financial holdings.

“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,” said William G. Ross, a Samford University law professor told the Center.

The Center examined 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. Judges owned stock in a company with a case before them on 24 occasions. In two additional cases, the judges had financial ties with law firms working on the cases before them.

Duncan is one of 16 judges that have had letters sent to parties in 26 cases disclosing the financial conflict of interest. Via a letter from the clerk of the court, Duncan acknowledged the mistake that “would have required the judge's recusal.” The clerk explained the judge was serving as an executor of a relative's estate at the time the case was pending. The judge sought to liquidate the account, but the Verizon stock had yet to be sold by the time she was assigned to the panel.

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