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Ohio Federal Judge Refuses to Let Law, Judicial Ethics, Stop Him From Presiding Over a Case

By Tyler Cooper, FTC senior researcher

Another day, another judge found to be presiding over a case he should not due to financial conflicts with one of the parties.

This case, 2:18-cv-00692, Garrett v. The Ohio State University,  was brought by hundreds of men who alleged Ohio State University failed to stop sexual abuse by then team doctor Richard Strauss.

The judge, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson, has direct financial ties to the school — he is an adjunct professor for OSU’s law school — and additional financial ties through his wife — she owns a flag business that is licensed to sell OSU merchandise and pays the school a 12 percent royalty for use of its trademarks.

Federal law, 28 U.S.C § 455(b)(4), specifically cites financial conflict as something that requires recusal:

“He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstance […] He knows that he […] or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding[.]”

The third canon, subsection C(1)(c), of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges also stipulates that financial conflicts demand recusal.

Neither the code nor the statute provides any escape hatch for a financially conflicted judge — there is no balancing test included, and there is no language whereby a judge can hear a case nonetheless because of some other consideration.

Both the law and judicial ethics are clear on the question of financial conflicts of a judge or a judge’s spouse, and both demand disqualification.

Despite the law, judicial ethics, and a reminder of both by motion of the plaintiffs, Judge Watson refused to recuse and dismissed the case against his employer and wife’s business partner.

Judge Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, is 64 years old and has life tenure. He is unlikely to face any meaningful consequences for his disregard of the recusal statute and the Code of Conduct, but this judicial hubris will continue to erode the public’s confidence in the third branch’s ability to handle disputes with impartiality.

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