June 4, 2020
Judge Erickson and Counsel Deyling,
This is Gabe Roth with Fix the Court. As you may know, my organization seeks to obtain the financial disclosure reports of all Article III judges and post them online, much as the disclosures of members of Congress and top executive branch officials are posted online.
Last Thursday, I received a copy of the nominee disclosure report that Judge Justin Walker (W.D. Ky.) filled out just after he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit in early May and covers the period from Jan. 1, 2019, to Apr. 15, 2020. In it, Walker indicates (p. 5) that he lent between $50,001 and $100,000 to two of his former University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law students, Jake Grey and Leah Spears, who are married and, according to a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman, intended to use that money to buy land on which to build a home.
Earlier today, I received the nominee disclosure report Walker filled out a year ago for his nomination to the U.S. District Court and covers Jan. 1, 2018, to June 15, 2019. This report also indicates a loan in the “L” range (p. 55) to Grey and Spears and includes Walker’s statement of net worth, which states that as of June 21, 2019, Walker was owed $86,133 “from relatives and friends” (p. 59). I am told that the full amount of the loan has since been paid back, but I find it hard to believe that that sum was repaid between the date of the disclosure filing (June, 25, 2019) and Walker’s Oct. 25, 2019, investiture.
Loaning such a large sum to law students – or recent law grads, since the disbursement date remains unclear and the two graduated in May 2018 – would be strange in its own right. But in researching this, I was told by a source close to the University of Louisville that one of the loan recipients, Grey, took over many of Walker’s teaching duties in the run-up to, and after, his Oct. 2019 confirmation as a U.S. District Court judge “by doing the heavy lifting of grading and conferencing with students,” though Grey was never formally hired. Walker, according to the disclosure, still earned his full taxpayer-funded salary of $97,139.28 that year. Students enrolled in Walker’s class were upset by the disruptions caused by his absences.
The other loan recipient, Leah Spears, is currently Walker’s law clerk in W.D. Kentucky.
I believe that the ongoing professional relationships between Walker and the recipients of this loan raise ethical concerns for the judge. With respect to Grey, he was not just a former student in the fall of 2019; he was essentially a Brandeis Law employee who was either underpaid as an adjunct or not paid, save for a loan from the person he was filling in for.
With respect to Spears, I believe it’s important to consider the imbalance in the power dynamic between federal judges and their clerks, which has come into stark focus in the last few years due to abuses that the judiciary and Congress have only begun to address. Such an imbalance is exacerbated when a clerk is financially beholden to her judge.
Rather than filing a complaint with the Clerk of Sixth Circuit or the Chief Judge of the Western District of Kentucky, I would appreciate your views on whether it is proper for a federal judge to be loaning money to individuals with whom he has ongoing professional relationships like those mentioned above.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Fix the Court
June 5, 2020