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Nominee Faces More Scrutiny Hours Ahead of Committee Vote

Justin Walker loaned two of his former students a large sum of money, raising ethics concerns 

Hours ahead of a committee vote that will determine if his nomination to the D.C. Circuit moves forward, Justin Walker is facing scrutiny over a bizarre line on his financial disclosure report indicating he loaned two former law students between $50,001 and $100,000.

A source close to the University of Louisville tells FTC that one of the loan recipients, 2018 Brandeis Law School graduate Jake Grey, took over many of Walker’s teaching duties in the run-up to his 2019 confirmation as a U.S. District Court judge “by doing the heavy lifting of grading and conferencing with students,” though it’s doubtful Grey was formally hired, and 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 source tells us.

The other loan recipient, Grey’s wife and fellow 2018 Brandeis Law grad Leah Spears, is currently Walker’s law clerk in W.D. Kentucky.

Walker stated on his report, which spans Jan. 1, 2019, to Apr. 15, 2020, that he earned between $5,000 and $15,000 on the loan during that time, translating to an interest rate as low as 3.8% or as high as 23.2%. FTC emailed Walker for an explanation, and a DOJ spokesman responded Tuesday that the rate was 4.25% and the loan had been repaid in full, but he did not indicate the exact disbursement and repayment dates. FTC followed up on that this morning.

FTC also received word yesterday from the dean of Brandeis Law, Colin Crawford, that our initial post from Monday was the first he had heard of this episode, adding, “I do not know the terms of the loan agreement, or why the loans were extended.”

The existence of the loan during the time in which Walker had certain relationships with the recipients raises ethical concerns. With respect to Grey, he was not just a former student in 2019, as a source tells FTC that he was essentially a Brandeis Law employee who was either underpaid as an adjunct or not paid, save for the loan.

“If someone who’s about to become a federal judge asks you  – a recent law grad who practices in the jurisdiction and who happens to owe the future judge money – to cover a few or several classes, you’d be hard-pressed to turn that ‘offer’ down,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said.

Further, the imbalance in the power dynamic between federal judges and their clerks has come into stark focus in the last few years due to rampant abuses that the judiciary and Congress have only begun to address. Judges continue to wield barely checked authority in their chambers, and they can make or break clerks’ careers. Such an imbalance is exacerbated when a clerk is financially beholden to his or her judge.

FTC staff noticed the loan when on May 28 we received a copy of Walker’s disclosure, dated May 8, 2020. The loan is not something FTC had ever seen in the thousands of judicial financial disclosures the organization has reviewed over the years.

Neither the loan, nor the extent to which Walker fulfilled his teaching responsibilities during his protracted, multi-court nomination process, were discussed during Walker’s May 6 confirmation hearing, nor were they discussed in his Senate Judiciary Questionnaire or his questions for the record. Those documents and a timeline are posted here.

“The loan raises several ethical concerns, and now the question becomes will the Senate do its due diligence and figure out what’s going on, or will they rubber-stamp another Trump nominee?” Roth added. “The difference today, though, is that there’s no vacancy – Judge Griffith is staying on until September – so the Senate has plenty of time to perform the vetting work it has in recent years become so loath to do.”

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