Seven federal judges in Louisiana are among the 131 in the United States who failed to recuse themselves from cases in which they had a financial conflict of interest, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal has found.
The newspaper’s reporters cross-referenced reams of disclosure forms with dockets to discover cases where judges should have stepped aside because they owned stock in companies before them. The judges weren’t accused of tipping the scales for personal gain. But under federal ethics law, they should have recused themselves from even the most minor of actions when they owned stock in the companies.
Many judges contacted by The Journal said they weren’t aware of the conflicts and their stock played no role in their decisions.
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District Judge Lance Africk, based in New Orleans, had the most conflicts identified in Louisiana. The newspaper found that he had nine, including one case where he dismissed a lawsuit over asbestos exposure after the parties came to a settlement. Africk was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Another Eastern District jurist, retired Judge Ginger Berrigan, also had a conflict identified by the newspaper. The court did not comment on her behalf. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton.
Across the rest of the state, the newspaper identified five other judges with either one or two conflicts: Brian Jackson and John deGravelles of Baton Rouge, both nominated by President Barack Obama; Maurice Hicks Jr. of Shreveport and Dee Drell of Alexandria, both nominated by President George W. Bush; and Donald Walter of Shreveport, nominated by President Ronald Reagan.
In the relevant court cases, Jackson, deGravelles and Walter had clerks file notices stating that their stock ownership did not affect their decisions.
Drell told The Journal he wasn’t aware of a conflict. Hicks would not comment.
Eight of Africk’s nine conflicts involved lawsuits where his only decision was to hand the case to a judge in another city for multi-district litigation involving major corporations.
The exception was a 2015 suit in which the heirs of a man who worked at the Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse alleged he contracted mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos while employed as a mechanic on jets built by Boeing and United Technologies. The case was initially assigned to Judge Jay Zainey, who transferred it to Africk.
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Africk should have stepped aside because he and his wife owned stock in Boeing and United Technologies. Africk did not rule on any contested motions involving Boeing or United Technologies after he received the case, which was before him for not quite a year, court record shows.
The judge would not comment on the conflict. But the clerk of court filed an Aug. 10 notice acknowledging he should have recused himself and stating that his stock ownership “neither affected nor impacted his decisions in this case.” The clerk invited parties to the case to respond to the disclosure by Aug. 25, which none of them did.
Africk’s failure to recuse didn’t draw ire from the attorney representing the airplane mechanic’s heirs, who said that Africk had an “impeccable” reputation.
“I doubt that that had anything to do with any ruling in this case from Judge Africk,” said the lawyer, Mickey Landry. “My experience with him has been that he is very by the book, rules on the evidence and the law.”