How Close is Too Close for Judicial Bias?

A plaintiff’s lawyer becomes a judge and looks to clear cases from his practice. He hands off one contract dispute to another lawyer, with the understanding that they will split the proceeds from any successful judgment.

Years pass and the case lands in his own courthouse, before a fellow judge who orders a $1.7 million payout.

Is that wrong? Even if the two judges never discussed the case, did it present enough appearance of impropriety that the case should have been transferred to another courthouse entirely?

A state appeals court wrangled with that question, posed in a Montgomery County case, for three years. Its answer last month – a 4-4 split – could have ripple effects far beyond the Norristown courthouse, especially as the state judiciary battles larger questions of ethics and impartiality.

Because the Pennsylvania Superior Court split evenly, the trial judge’s decision that he need not recuse himself was upheld. And even though the ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court, experts say the divide and the strongly-worded dissent should weigh heavily the next time a judge faces such a question.

“The message was sent loud and clear to every lawyer and every judge in the state,” said Paul R. Rosen, one of the lawyers in the case. “Next time someone is in front of any court in Pennsylvania where one of the judges has a piece of the action on that case – no one’s going to ever do it again.”

More on the story here…

Time line of events here…

Memorandum and final opinion below.