Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Judicial Ethics Beyond the U.S. Supreme Court

Concerns about the absence of any applicable judicial ethics standards to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grew into loud demands for an ethics code last year. The result was the adoption of a code largely consistent with the one applicable to federal judges generally, although it contained some important exceptions and also lacked any enforcement mechanism. As a result, recusal remains an individual decision for each justice with only vague and voluntary guidance.

Even though the rules may seem more clearly defined in other courts, surprisingly, issues remain. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Caperton v. Massey, which applied the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to judicial recusal. Brent Benjamin had won election as a justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Substantial independent expenditures by a party in the case likely helped Benjamin’s candidacy. He nonetheless refused to recuse and argued that the money did not come to him, did not necessarily help his campaign, and did not affect his vote in favor of his so-called benefactor. Disagreeing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “risk of actual bias” was serious enough “based on objective and reasonable perceptions” that recusal was mandatory.

Although Caperton seemed to establish a standard that erred in favor of recusal, high court justices often determine for themselves whether they should be recused and adopt a personal standard. In one case I had in that same West Virginia court, I asked a justice to recuse himself after he had campaigned on a pledge to uphold the law I was challenging in remarks during his campaign to the group that had lobbied in favor it. He initially denied the motion for recusal, writing a statement about how he had First Amendment rights. Subsequent press coverage, quoting ethics experts who agreed that recusal was warranted, caused him to rethink his position and agree to recuse himself.

Today, the recusal issue is squarely presented in a case pending in the Ohio Supreme Court. Justice Joe Deters joined the Court a year ago after a career largely spent as a county prosecutor. The Court heard oral argument in State v. Glover on February 7. In a bench trial, a judge found Glover guilty of aggravated robbery and kidnapping after a crime spree in which he forced individuals at gunpoint to take him to an ATM, where he robbed them. The judge gave an aggregate sentence of 60 years for the multiple felonies with consecutive sentences. An appellate court found error in the sentence, ordering it reduced to an aggregate of 25 years. The State brought the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Justice Deters chose not to recuse himself, despite having served as lead counsel in the prosecution of Glover just two years ago. Ohio Rule of Judicial Conduct 2.11(a) requires a judge to “disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Among the specific examples of circumstances warranting disqualification are: (1) having “personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding” and (2) the judge “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.”

Even though the issue is now a larger one than the underlying case and concerns the criteria applicable to sentencing when multiple crimes are committed, any decision will determine the length of Glover’s incarceration. It seems clear that Justice Deters has “personal knowledge of facts in dispute” and “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.” Moreover, the case was argued by Deters’s former co-counsel, which also requires disqualification. Given that the appearance of impropriety suffices to disqualify, the decision against recusal comprises an affront to due process. At oral argument, only Deters asked no questions. His silence, however, does not cure the problem.

As with Caperton, the potential exists for this case to land in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Ohio Court of Appeals is reversed, particularly if Deters’s vote is decisive, Glover’s appointed counsel could raise Fourteenth Amendment due process objections. No one should miss the irony of a Court where recusal is entirely voluntary deciding when it should be mandatory for others.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2024/02/judicial-ethics-beyond-the-us-supreme-court.html

Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink

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