On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Stocks and ethics collide in courtroom

By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 04/04/98 23:00

Federal judges here and elsewhere repeatedly have presided over lawsuits against companies in which they own stock.

That's not supposed to happen. U.S. law requires judges to withdraw from any lawsuit in which they know they have a financial interest, however small. So does the judicial Code of Conduct.

Yet a study by The Kansas City Star discovered federal judges from the Kansas City area issued more than 200 court orders while holding an interest in a litigant. They set hearings, granted motions, threw out legal claims and even conducted a jury trial.

For comparison, The Star examined courthouses in Oregon and Pennsylvania -- and found identical problems.

In all, The Star's investigation identified 57 legal actions in which a district judge entered one or more such orders. In the Kansas City area alone, nine district judges, or two-thirds of those in the local courthouses, entered orders in 33 problem cases.

At the same time, the judges owned anywhere from a few thousand dollars to as much as $250,000 in stock in companies involved in a suit, or in the companies' parent corporations.

"I'm shocked," said Jeffrey Shaman, a judicial ethicist and a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "It's such a clear violation."

The newspaper's study found no evidence any judge benefited personally or let his stock holdings influence his rulings.

But many litigants and lawyers said the findings raised questions about how judges, who are appointed for life to ensure others follow the letter of the law, police themselves.

David Barrett, an attorney in one of the lawsuits, called the findings "a little scary."

"People assume," he said, "that judges are all honest and fair -- and avoid conflicts."

Most judges said in explaining the lapses that they made innocent mistakes or forgot what they owned. Some said their staffs were supposed to spot the conflicts. Others blamed the crush of paperwork.

Many orders were routine and had little effect on the lawsuits, which often were settled out of court. Some orders simply appointed legal couriers or set filing schedules. And in at least seven of the 57 cases, judges recognized their stock conflict and stepped out of the lawsuits before The Star began its study.

Yet experts said that, in each instance, judges should have monitored their investments and withdrawn before entering a single order.

"This kind of sloppiness is more than unseemly; it is destructive of the public's confidence in an impartial judiciary," said James C. Turner, a Washington lawyer and consumer advocate.

Many judges acknowledged they may have broken ethics laws, at least technically.

"I take it very seriously," Judge John W. Lungstrum of Kansas City, Kan., said of the lapses. He inadvertently presided over two recent lawsuits while his family owned up to $65,000 in stock in the defendants.

"I want to make sure," he added, "that it doesn't happen again."

For some litigants, the judges' stock ownership already has sullied the image of the court system.

Two years ago a Kansas City man sued cigarette manufacturers, accusing them of deliberately addicting smokers to nicotine. Seven weeks later, a judge threw out the lawsuit as frivolous.

Until told by The Star, the plaintiff had no idea the judge owned stock in one of the companies.

In another lawsuit, Dana DeSuza of Independence charged that the Sprint Corp. violated discrimination laws when it fired her. A judge threw out part of her $1.9 million claim, and presided over a trial in which a jury rejected the remainder of her case.

Two years passed before DeSuza learned the judge owned stock in Sprint. Her reaction: "I'm disgusted."

The Star's findings already are leading to change here and around the country.

For example, at least one judge sold his stock within days of being interviewed. "I don't want any question," said Judge Dean Whipple, "about whether I had any ulterior motive on those cases."

Two weeks after court officials sent her notice that the newspaper was reviewing her investments, Judge Kathryn H. Vratil mailed letters to litigants in at least six lawsuits. She told them they might have grounds to vacate her judgments and reopen their cases. Vratil called the timing a coincidence.

In Pittsburgh, a judge withdrew from a $9 million lawsuit shortly after The Star notified him that his wife owned stock in three separate defendants, eight years into the legal action.

A factory worker in northern Pennsylvania, alerted to his judge's stock by The Star's study, two weeks ago filed a motion accusing the judge of violating ethics laws. He requested a new trial in the age-discrimination case, which had been closed for two years.

Other litigants said they also were looking into resurrecting their long-closed cases.

Authorities in Washington are taking notice, too.

Three days after being contacted by The Star, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts faxed a memo marked "URGENT" to more than 100 chief judges across the nation. It suggested they review and update their methods for identifying conflicts of interest. That is something several judges said they were doing already.

"What we're really talking about is the integrity of the judicial system," explained Leslie W. Abramson, a law professor at the University of Louisville and an expert on judicial ethics.

"In the worst-case scenario, judgments could be affected."

The honor system

Congress was worried about such conflicts 24 years ago. That's when legislators beefed up ethics laws to bolster confidence in the courts.

They considered financial conflicts so serious, in fact, that they made them illegal even when the judge's investment is tiny and when lawyers waive any objections.

The idea was to prevent quibbling over the extent of the judge's legal role or the size of his financial stake. As a practical matter, experts said, it would be impossible to determine the purity of a judge's thoughts when he renders a particular decision.

To help ensure compliance, judges must list their investments annually on reports filed in Washington.

But strict rules make the reports difficult to get and alert the judges they are under scrutiny. That ensures few people review them.

Short of Congress impeaching a judge, no one outside the judiciary is authorized to enforce the ethics statutes. Judges are on the honor system, trusted to police their own conflicts. The law sets no penalty for crossing the line.

Until now, experts said, no one has taken an in-depth look at how scrupulous trial-level judges have been about avoiding such problems.

For its study, the newspaper analyzed financial disclosure reports filed since 1991 by district judges based in parts of four of the 13 federal appellate circuits.

The courthouses were chosen because of their size and because each represents a different judicial district: Kansas City (Western Missouri District); Kansas City, Kan. (Kansas); Pittsburgh (Western Pennsylvania) and Portland (Oregon).

The Star then compared the judges' stock holdings with thousands of civil lawsuits.

Although the study found problems at each courthouse, on average judges in the Kansas City area issued more court orders in more questionable cases.

Among the lawsuits identified locally, 19 involved judges who owned stock in a litigant; one suit involved a judge whose wife owned the problem stock. In 11 other lawsuits, judges owned stock in the parent corporation of one or more litigants.

The final two cases involved a different sort of problem. A judge who sat on the Board of Governors at Truman Medical Center presided over two lawsuits against the center -- and threw both out of court.

Under ethics statutes and judicial canons, experts said, judges should have no role in any of those cases.

"Some people might say it's surprising," Abramson said of The Star's findings. "Other people might say it's disappointing."

`Slap in the face'

Some litigants grew furious when told of the judges' investments.

"It makes me feel like I've been violated," litigant Ed Wallace said moments after hearing that the judge in his lawsuit against the Chrysler Corp. bought Chrysler stock in the midst of the case.

"I really feel that I got the raw end of the deal."

Nancy Powell is stinging, too. The judge who handled Powell's lawsuit against her former employer revealed her stock ownership just 11 days before trial, bringing the case to a halt.

"The sheer emotion of the whole thing was horrendous," Powell said.

Darrell Taylor suffered severe injuries in a traffic accident, then pursued a $1 million lawsuit against an insurance company. He had no idea his judge owned stock in the company's holding corporation.

"There should be a law against that," he said.

Even in cases where a judge's involvement was brief and cursory, some litigants grew indignant.

For example, the first judge assigned to handle Linda Zimmerman's lawsuit against General Motors issued one order, scheduling a conference. Because of a conflict unrelated to stock ownership, the judge withdrew nine days later.

Even so, Zimmerman erupted when a reporter told her the judge owned up to $30,000 in General Motors stock.

"I did not know about any of this," Zimmerman said. "That's a conflict."

Rightly or wrongly, the findings also fed a pervasive skepticism about the fairness of American courts.

"I am not a fan of the justice system," explained one litigant, Harvey Bruce. "You cannot get a fair shake in this country."

Among the lawyers involved, Randy James' reaction mirrored that of many.

James of Overland Park praised the integrity of federal judges. He is confident stock investments did not sway the judge's rulings in his case.

Yet James responded to The Star's overall findings with exclamations of "Wow!" and "My goodness!" And he found the picture they painted disturbing.

"It's so obvious it slaps you in the face," James said. "If you've got a conflict, you've got to get out."

Unlike James, many lawyers refused to discuss the conflicts unless promised anonymity.

"You've got to understand my position," one attorney said, repeatedly asking that his name not appear in the newspaper. "This judge determines my ability to make a living."

Several lawyers said they never considered looking for financial conflicts. They assumed judges were conscientious and would reveal any stock interests.

Some also pointed out that if an attorney had a financial conflict, he would face serious trouble for himself and his case.

"It's more than a little ironic," one lawyer said, "that a judge got caught in this situation."

Hollow warnings

Each spring, judges take part in a ritual designed to remind them of conflicts and their duty to avoid them.

Every judge lists his assets on a detailed form, then signs an attached certification declaring that he did not break any ethics laws.

The certification requires each judge to attest that:

"To the best of my knowledge at the time after reasonable inquiry, I did not perform any adjudicatory function in any litigation during the period covered by this report in which I ... had a financial interest. ..."

The judge's signature is followed by a pre-printed warning:

"Any individual who knowingly and wilfully falsifies ... this report may be subject to civil and criminal sanctions."

But the warning is hollow. Court officials in Washington could not identify a single instance in which a judge was disciplined. And the certification clearly did not stop judges from handling cases in which they owned stock.

For example, Whipple presided over two 1996 lawsuits against the Philip Morris Cos. Whipple threw out both.

Then, Whipple filed a financial report last spring that disclosed he owned up to $15,000 worth of stock in Philip Morris. (The form only shows ranges of stock value, not precise amounts.)

Whipple said in an interview he believed that, in some cases, he could legally own stock in litigants, although he concedes his opinion is in the minority.

Whipple was far from alone in signing the statement. The Star reviewed more than 200 of the certifications filed over six years by judges in four states. None of the judges disclosed a single conflict.

That's the case even for judges who presided over part of a lawsuit, discovered and acknowledged their stock ownership, then belatedly withdrew. Each later signed the statement without elaboration.

For example, Judge Elmo B. Hunter presided over a lawsuit filed in 1990 by the General Motors Acceptance Corp. Ten months and seven court orders into the suit, he notified lawyers that he owned General Motors stock; his disclosure reports show it was worth $100,000 to $250,000.

Hunter announced he would preside over the case unless the lawyers objected. They did not, and Hunter continued on the case until the parties reached a negotiated settlement six months later.

Federal law requires a judge with an interest in a litigant to withdraw even if the lawyers beg him to stay. That applies even when the judge's interest is in the litigant's parent company, experts said. Yet Hunter signed the certification.

Hunter, who has been ill, could not be reached for comment.

The lapses are especially striking in instances where a judge issued orders in a lawsuit just before signing the certification.

Two years ago, for example, Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. issued an order in a lawsuit against AT&T Communications, a common name for AT&T Corp. The very next day, Gaitan signed the certification and sent a list of his investments to Washington.

The list included up to $15,000 in AT&T stock.

Gaitan declined repeated requests for an interview. In a letter, he called his AT&T holdings insubstantial and his role in the case minimal.

About the same time, Judge Lungstrum signed a 108-page consent decree in a lawsuit against a string of corporations, including Western Resources Inc. and General Motors.

The same day, Lungstrum signed the certification and mailed a list of his family's 1995 holdings to Washington. They included Western Resources stock and a special class of General Motors securities, worth up to $100,000.

Lungstrum acknowledged he probably did not compare his assets with his caseload before signing the form. Instead, he assumed he already would have discovered and resolved any conflicts.

"I just did not think about that," he said. "But I signed it with an absolute certainty that I did not have a conflict.

"I probably had a little bit of hubris there that I was not going to miss it."

In one case, the disclosure ritual failed to prevent stock problems from cropping up twice in a single lawsuit.

Jerald Heintzelman filed suit in 1995 after losing his job at AT&T Microelectronics, a division of AT&T with offices in Lee's Summit.

The case was assigned to Judge Howard F. Sachs, who owned AT&T stock worth $15,000 to $50,000. Sachs issued two orders.

Seven months into the suit, Sachs disclosed his stock and withdrew. Three days later, a magistrate withdrew before taking any action because he also was an AT&T stockholder.

The case then passed to Gaitan, who issued five orders. Ultimately, Gaitan agreed to requests by both sides and dismissed the lawsuit.

Five weeks later, Gaitan signed a form disclosing his assets.

The only stock listed: AT&T.