Federal Judges Not Above the Law

People attending a school board or municipal government meeting often are puzzled when a member of one of those elected bodies chooses to abstain from voting on an issue.

Perhaps, most of those people soon learn that the abstention was the means by which the member in question made the correct decision regarding something that would have been a conflict of interest, if he or she had voted.

For example, on the school board front, perhaps the board member who abstained did so because a son, daughter or other relative was on the list of people being hired as teachers.

On the municipal government front, perhaps the abstention was due to the councilman or supervisor being a past or present employee of a company being considered for a contract.

People serving in such elected positions are expected to know and abide by rules in place to prevent conflicts between their own private interests and their official responsibilities. Those who violate conflict-of-interest laws deserve the penalties applicable to the offense.

The Wall Street Journal has released findings from an investigation into federal judges who failed to recuse themselves in cases where they had conflicts.

Here is the most troubling finding: “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.”

The newspaper went on to say that judges improperly failed to disqualify themselves from 685 court cases around the nation since 2010.

Federal law since 1974, while not barring judges from owning stocks, has prohibited them from hearing cases that involve a party in which they, their spouses or their minor children have a “legal or equitable interest, however small.” The U.S. Supreme Court has stated the law’s goal is to promote confidence in the judiciary.

Based on what the Journal has reported, instead of confidence, it would seem we have plenty of justification for lack of confidence.

The scope of the problem is an atrocity. According to the Journal’s investigation, no judges in modern times have been removed from the federal bench solely for having a financial interest in a plaintiff or defendant who appeared in their courtroom.

Perhaps it is time for that to change.


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