Federal Judges Found to Have Decided Cases When They Had Financial Conflicts of Interest
An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that 131 federal judges presided over 950 cases between 2010 and 2019, involving companies in which they or a family member owned stock. These figures do not include 2020 and 2021 for which court data is not yet available.
As a result of the WSJ findings, as of March 17, 2022, court clerks have notified parties in 836 lawsuits that the judges should have disqualified themselves and that those cases could be reassigned or reopened.
Judges may own stocks but a 1974 federal law prohibits them from owning “a legal or equitable interest, however small,” in a party to a case. The Judicial Council requires courts to use conflict-checking computer software to help identify cases where judges have conflicts and must recuse themselves.
The judges who violated this law are found in every region of the United States and include 129 district and 2 appellate court judges appointed by nearly every president since Lyndon Johnson. The more troubling finding is that in cases where judges owned stock in one of the company litigants, they ruled in its favor two out of three times on contested matters. Even more remarkable “dozens” of judges or their family members traded the stock of a party while they were presiding over its case.
Commenting on the WSJ’s findings, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated: “...the Judiciary takes this matter seriously. We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and [these] judges violated an ethics rule.” Chief Justice Roberts went on to say that blaming computer software designed to catch such conflicts of interest is no excuse, and that, in the future, “ethics training programs need to be more rigorous.”
The US Senate unanimously passed legislation in February to require federal judges to promptly post online their stock trades and financial holdings. However, the federal judiciary opposes such legislation, which is puzzling.
So what can you do if you're litigating against a public company? If the court clerk notifies you of a recusal violation, you can ask the court to rehear your case with a different judge. You can also contact the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for your judge’s latest financial disclosure forms to determine whether he or she has a conflict. However, these forms are filed annually and thus not always current. You can ask the clerk for the judge’s current financial disclosures, but judges are told who requested them, which can create a disincentive for attorneys to request them.
Grimaldi, James V., Coulter Jones, and Joe Palazzolo. “131 Federal Judges Broke the Law by Hearing Cases Where They Had a Financial Interest.” WSJ.com. SEPT 28, 2021.
Jones, Coulter, Joe Palazzolo, and Michael Siconolfi. “Dozens of Federal Judges Had Financial Conflicts: What You Need to Know.” WSJ.com. MAR 17, 2022.
Savage, David G. “Chief Justice Roberts calls for better enforcements of conflict laws involving judges’ stock ownership.” LATimes.com. DEC 31, 2021.