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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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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