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Chinn: Can of Worms Opened

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iba-chinn-scottThis column is usually void of legal analysis. (Pause for various jokes told to yourself.) But in this edition, I want to highlight a recent legal opinion that bears upon an initiative of the IndyBar. I will raise more questions than I answer, and this likely won’t be the last time we will talk about the matter.

As you may know, the IndyBar has been concerned for a few years now with the reach of Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., the 2009 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that in some circumstances contributions to judicial campaigns can give rise to due process violations when the judge whose campaign received the contribution fails to recuse himself or herself in a case in which the contributor is a party. Shortly after the decision came down, the IndyBar sent a letter to the Indiana Supreme Court asking that the court consider adopting rules for Caperton’s application in Indiana. The court has yet to do that.

Since then, the IndyBar has explored ways to avoid the appearance of impropriety that may be created, and in some cases has been highlighted by the media, by lawyers giving contributions to judges in front of whom they appear. The Attorneys for an Independent Bench political action committee, as one example, was initially formed as a vehicle to accept contributions for distribution to all nominated judges for those who were concerned about making contributions to specific judges in front of whom they may practice.

Again, the point is not that judges’ impartiality can reasonably be compromised by a $100 or $200 contribution from a lawyer. Nor is that level of contribution likely to invoke Capterton’s due process concerns — millions of dollars in contributions were at issue in that case. Still, we want to avoid circumstances that give rise to an appearance of partiality. And to offer a common-sense point that seems to go largely uncommented on in this context: do you think that most clients even know that the lawyers in their cases can lawfully give money to the judge’s campaign? How many clients, when told that opposing counsel had contributed to the judge’s campaign would fail to ask of his own lawyer, “well, how much did you give?”

Add to this discussion the recent case of Bloomington Magazine, Inc. v. Kiang, 961 N.E.2d 61 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012). In this case about an advertising dispute between the publisher of Bloom Magazine and a restaurateur, the trial judge denied a motion by the lawyer for the magazine to recuse the judge because the opposing lawyer had been the judge’s campaign chair for the judicial elections held two years previously. The Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision denying recusal, holding that the professional (political) relationship between the judge and the lawyer was close enough in time (2008 election, 2010 case) that “a reasonable person would have a rational basis for doubting her impartiality.” The court relied in part on Rule 2.11 of the Indiana Rules of Judicial Conduct, which requires judicial disqualification when a judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including for the reason of the judge’s personal bias toward a party’s lawyer.

Attention … the can of worms is now open for business. So, how long is the “cooling-off period” before a judicial campaign chair can practice in the judge’s court again? Is it only the campaign chair whose relationship with the judge gives rise to recusal, or would the appearance of the campaign treasurer or other members of the campaign invoke the rule? Are there any circumstances in which the lawyer-campaign chair’s activities are attributed to his or her partners for purposes of recusal? After Kiang, what are the obligations of a lawyer from a legal malpractice/risk management perspective to perform due diligence about whether his or her opposing counsel has been a campaign officer for the judge?

Turning to Caperton-type issues, what about campaign contributions? What amount of contributions under the Indiana rules would be enough to require recusal? (This is not an academic question. There have been motions to recuse judges in Marion County made and granted on the basis of small contributions having been made by the opposing lawyer.) When determining the threshold amount of a contribution that may give rise to Caperton due process issues or Indiana Rule-based appearance of partiality concerns, do you only consider the contributions of the lawyer appearing in front of the recipient judge or do you count all the contributions from that lawyer’s firm?

Brainstorming these questions would be a dangerous drinking game. But lawyers and judges are now going to have to stir them into the cocktails of our practice.•

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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