The Federal Law That 138 Judges Have Broken – The Journal. – WSJ Podcasts

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This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Kate Linebaugh: Our colleague James Grimaldi has been working on a big investigation, that started with a simple question.

James Grimaldi: Well, it began last year when I was asked to look into the finances of Supreme Court Justice nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

Kate Linebaugh: James started looking into Barrett’s finances. She’d been serving as a federal judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He was looking to see if she’d had any conflicts of interest. To do that, he had to go through all the cases she had heard and keep track of every company involved, every plaintiff, and every defendant. It was taking a lot longer than he expected.

James Grimaldi: And I was putting all of the data into a spreadsheet and I thought, someone, somewhere, must have digitized this. Why am I doing this? So I started asking around, has someone digitized this?

Kate Linebaugh: James started thinking beyond just Barrett’s records. He started wondering whether there were any databases with every financial conflict a federal judge might have. Eventually, he found a guy who he thought might have it, but that guy said …

James Grimaldi: Well, I don’t have it. But this guy out in Oakland does. I’m like, what? And he works for this nonprofit called the Free Law Project. And he had this project going on for several years, to obtain from the administrative office of the courts, every financial disclosure for every federal judge, and digitize it. So I immediately called him, and it was like he was waiting for my call. He was ready. And that was the beginning of a year long effort.

Kate Linebaugh: That year-long effort led to an investigation into the cases these judges had handled, and whether they’d handled the cases properly. And now the results of that investigation have been published. More than 100 federal judges across the country broke the law between 2010 and 2018. Meaning they oversaw cases where they had a financial interest.

James Grimaldi: We found it very hard to believe that it was actually true, that so many judges were breaking the law. I mean, these are judges. They’re lawyers. Judges interpret the law. They enforce the law. They don’t break the law. But judges very rarely receive any kind of scrutiny, federal judges in particular. And they’re used to being sort of the king and queens of their own domain.

Kate Linebaugh: Welcome to The Journal. Our show about money, business, and power. I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Friday, October 1st. Coming up on the show, the federal law that judges have broken. And a closer look at the judge who’s broken at the most.
James started off reporting on Amy Coney Barrett. But once he got access to that giant database of judges and their cases, he realized he could do much more than investigate one judge. He could use this data to look into conflicts of interest for all federal judges, to see if judges presided over cases where they had a financial interest. But to figure that out, he needed help.

James Grimaldi: I’m not a data dude. So I needed a data dude. So I went to my editors and they say, hey, Coulter Jones is working on something similar. Now he didn’t have this data, he didn’t know about it. So Coulter and I ended up partnering immediately and started working on it.

Kate Linebaugh: Coulter and James were looking into whether judges violated a specific law. One that passed in 1974 in the wake of Nixon’s resignation.

James Grimaldi: So around that time, there were a lot of reforms and a lot of ethics reforms. And Congress created this black and white rule. They had hearings, they had judges testify.

Kate Linebaugh: You use this term, it’s a black and white law. What does that mean?

James Grimaldi: Well, it means it’s supposed to be very clear cut. It’s meant to be a bright line. It’s meant to be a case in which, if you do X, you must do Y. If you own X, you must do Y.

Kate Linebaugh: This law says that judges have to recuse themselves from any case where they have a financial interest. So if judges, their spouses, or minor children have any, even a small financial interest in a plaintiff or a defendant in their court, the judges must disqualify themselves from the case.

James Grimaldi: It was mostly trying to protect the integrity of the court. It was trying to protect the confidence that we have in the United States for American jurisprudence. And anything, however small that could cast any doubt or any bias or any appearance of bias by a judge, they wanted to just completely eliminate that.

Kate Linebaugh: And so how does the law work in practice? What is supposed to happen?

James Grimaldi: What they’re supposed to do is take all their investments and create a list, a recusal list. And they submit that to the clerk of the court.

Kate Linebaugh: After judges make the list of companies whose cases they should recuse themselves from, the list is uploaded into a database that’s meant to flag possible conflicts as they arise.
And how often are judges recusing themselves from these cases? Is this a commonplace occurrence?

James Grimaldi: Well, we don’t know. Why? Because they have this computer system that may screen it before they ever get assigned the case. Or they may get assigned it and they reject it because they have the stock. So there’s no record of this. It’s not available online. Now, there are cases where a judge will accidentally get assigned it, they’ll realize they have a conflict, and they will notify the court. But it’s our understanding that most of the cases that are screened out, we never know about.

Kate Linebaugh: James and Coulter wanted to see if they could actually identify if these judges had been involved in potential conflicts of interest. So they went through all the documents and research they received from the nonprofit in Oakland, plus more. They had one database that identified judges’ assets, and another database of court records. They wanted to use these two to identify potential conflicts, but they needed a reporter who had extensive experience in the legal world.

James Grimaldi: And that’s when we needed Joe Pallazolo as well. Because we had a long list of potential conflicts, and the only way to confirm that these were really conflicts was to go through them in a laborious, painstaking case by case review.

Kate Linebaugh: The team did this work for months.

James Grimaldi: Looking at the case and looking at the case docket and seeing, did the judge actually hold this stock, hold this interest in this company at the same time that the company was a plaintiff or a defendant in the case. We literally had to look at timelines to make sure that we actually had them. And then, of course, we reached out to every judge.

Kate Linebaugh: The team of three worked with one another to write and build computer programs that would scrape this data and present it in different graphs and tables so they could understand the conflicts. And what they found was that out of roughly 700 federal judges they investigated around the country, between the years of 2010 and 2018, over 130 judges had inappropriately heard cases. More than 680 cases.

James Grimaldi: It was more of a like, are you really seeing what I’m seeing? Are these judges really doing this? Is this really happening? Are these judges really violating the law over and over again? I mean, we didn’t really believe it at first. I mean, for a long time, it’s like, is there something we don’t understand about this?

Kate Linebaugh: Judges gave James and the team a range of explanations for their errors. Several blamed court clerks. Others blamed misspellings on forms. Some said they only took minimal action in the cases. But the law doesn’t make many exceptions. And James says that in many cases, judges owned thousands of dollars of stock in companies that appeared in their courtrooms.

James Grimaldi: I can’t get into the mind of a judge and know why…

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