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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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