The New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA) has released a report addressing the issue of alleged conflicts of interest among judges in New York County, the report of the Task Force on the Judicial Selection Subcommittee on Disqualifying Economic Interest, which was approved by the NYCLA Executive Committee on June 22.
The report responds to the criticism that judges have failed to disqualify themselves on cases in which they (directly or though a spouse) had an alleged "conflict" due to holdings of securities of a party that is a publicly traded company, even when those holdings are minimal. The report makes specific recommendations to combat such allegations of impropriety and urges the Unified Court System to establish an Office of Conflict Counsel to assist judges in their efforts to avoid presiding over cases in which a conflict may exist.
The proposal significantly expands disclosure obligations, requiring all litigants to identify their parents and affiliates so that judges can more easily identify whether a conflict exists. Additionally, it establishes a more flexible approach in cases in which a judge has a de minimus security holding. In all cases, disclosures of an interest to the parties is required so that they may make an informed decision as to whether or not to seek recusal. NYCLA President Normal L. Reimer said, "The proposal underscores the fundamental principle that sunshine is the best disinfectant, while minimizing the risks that judges will inadvertently become ensnared in frivolous allegations of impropriety. It rightly imposes a duty upon the litigants to provide full disclosure of their affiliates and parents, in recognition of the modern reality of interdependent economic interest."
NYCLA's Task Force on Judicial Selection is co-chaired by Rosalind Fink and Susan B. Lindenauer, and Rita W. Warner serves as chair of the Subcommittee on Disqualifying Interest. According to Ms. Warner: "A de minimus standard for assessing judicial disqualification recognizes that inconsequential share ownership is unrelated to actual or perceived bias, and it protects ethical and hard-working judges from undeserved criticism if they overlook an insignificant ownership interest. At the same time, both litigants and the court system must do their fair share to minimize any risk of conflict."
Summarizing one recommendation made by the Task Force, Ms. Fink said, "Party disclosure should be a substantial help to judges who now risk unfair attack for failing to identify a conflict that is not known to them when they're first assigned to a case."
The complete report can be found on the homepage of NYCLA's website at www.nycla.org.