The Volokh Conspiracy

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Federal Judges Failed to Recuse in Hundreds of Cases

A Wall Street Journal report shows that federal judges do not always recuse when cases implicate their financial holdings.


Over 100 federal judges failed to recuse themselves from cases involving firms in which they held stock or other financial interests between 2010 and 2018, according to a new Wall Street Journal report. All told, the investigation identified 685 cases in which the judge or a family member owned stock in a company involved in a case before them.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that judges have improperly failed to disqualify themselves from 685 court cases around the nation since 2010. The jurists were appointed by nearly every president from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump.

About two-thirds of federal district judges disclosed holdings of individual stocks, and nearly one of every five who did heard at least one case involving those stocks.

Alerted to the violations by the Journal, 56 of the judges have directed court clerks to notify parties in 329 lawsuits that they should have recused themselves. That means new judges might be assigned, potentially upending rulings.

When judges participated in such cases, about two-thirds of their rulings on motions that were contested came down in favor of their or their family's financial interests.

The clerk's office in each court often maintains a list of each judge's investments and checks for conflicts before assigning cases, but this is an imperfect check, as the study indicates, and does not prevent the serious appearance problem created by judicial decisions on matters related to a judge's investments.

The majority of the cases identified by the WSJ may have involved simple oversights, but the report highlights the need for federal judges to place their investments in index funds and equivalent instruments or place their investments in trust.