Have you ever been hammered in court, and then learn that the judge has received large – maybe Texas-sized – political campaign contributions from opposing counsel? We have, and it’s not a good feeling. Well, in Pennsylvania at least, new judicial ethics rules handed down yesterday by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court now provide a ground for mandatory recusal in this circumstance. Here’s the new rule:
(A) A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to the following circumstances:
* * *
(4) The judge knows or learns that a party, a party’s lawyer, or the law firm of a party’s lawyer has made a direct or indirect contribution(s) to the judge’s campaign in an amount that would raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality of the judge’s consideration of a case involving the party, the party’s lawyer, or the law firm of the party’s lawyer. In doing so, the judge should consider the public perception regarding such contributions and their effect on the judge’s ability to be fair and impartial. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that recusal or disqualification is not warranted when a contribution or reimbursement for transportation, lodging, hospitality or other expenses is equal to or less than the amount required to be reported as a gift on a judge’s Statement of Financial Interest.
The reportable “amount” mentioned at the end of the rule refers to Rule 3.15, which requires reporting of gifts totaling $250 or more on an annual basis. So the rebuttable presumption kicks out above that number.
This is a mandatory recusal provision, so where the amount of political contributions involved greatly exceeds the presumed OK amount, by say four ($1000) to ten times ($2500) or more, motions could be expected to have a decent chance of success, either at the trial court level or on appeal, assuming as we do that the Court intends the rule to have teeth.
This new rule needs to be evaluated both for its offensive (in terms of filing recusal motions in appropriate cases) and defensive (those who contribute to judicial campaigns need to take it into account) implications.