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More Than 100 Federal Judges Failed to Recuse When They Owned Stock in a Litigant. What's Their Excuse(s)?

In the process of reporting its story on judges’ missed stock-based recusals, the Wall Street Journal reached out to all 131 judges whose missed recusals they identified.

Many of them apologized and had the court clerk file a notice about their error(s). It’s possible that a fair number of those cases will be reopened. Other judges were defiant and didn’t see an issue.

In any event, we’d like to note some of the excuses they gave the reporters. 

“It’s okay for me to hear the case despite a conflict if the parties agree it’s not a big deal”

Judge Gregory Frost (S.D. Ohio; ret.) told the Journal he’d notify the parties in a case about a potential conflict and, as noted in the story, “if requested, I would recuse myself from the case.” That’s not how the federal recusal law works, of course, and he should have recusaed.

“I didn’t know a spouse’s retirement account counts as a conflict”

Judge Julia Gibbons (CA6) said she thought a holding in her husband’s retirement account didn’t compel her recusal. That’s inaccurate, and upon reviewing the law told the Journal that she now realizes she made a mistake.

Judge Sandra Lynch (CA1) said she didn’t know about the Pfizer stock in her husband’s retirement account, which is what accounted for her recusal error.

“I didn’t recuse because I was only doing administrative tasks in the case”

Judge Rodney Gilstrap (E.D. Tex.) attributed some of his missed recusals to the fact that in those cases he was just performing administrative tasks, which somehow doesn’t count.

Judge Thomas Ludington (E.D. Mich.) told the Journal essentially the same thing but called those tasks “[non-]adjudicatory decisions.” Interesting, but those tasks still count under the recusal law.

“I forgot to update my conflicts sheet”

Judge Leo Glasser (E.D.N.Y.) said he forgot to update his conflicts sheet when he bought Merck stock three years ago.

Judge John Jones III (M.D. Penn.; ret.) said it’s likely he forgot to update his conflicts sheet after his broker bought a stock for him.

Judge John Ross (E.D. Mo.) said he inherited shares of stock after his mother died and forgot to update his conflicts sheet.

Judge Thomas Russell (W.D. Ky.) bought his shares in question as part of his “participation in an investment club partnership” and didn’t update his conflicts sheet.

Judge Aleta Trauger (M.D. Tenn.) inherited Wal-Mart stock when a family member died but, she says, she was “slow in notifying our Clerk’s Office” to add the company to her conflicts list.

“The software missed it”

Judge William Kuntz II (E.D.N.Y.) said that the conflict-check software failed to mark that an American Home Mortgage Service affiliate, in which Kuntz had a financial stake, was a conflict.

Remember how then-Judge Barrett’s public conflicts sheet included seven variations of “Shell Oil Co.”? Here’s why: according to Judge Edgardo Ramos (S.D.N.Y.), only exact matches get flagged by the conflict-check software. With Ramos, the software failed to mark “ExxonMobil Oil Corp.” as a conflict since, he said, he only has “Exxon Mobil Corp.” on his conflicts list.

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