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The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates on Aug. 8 urged states to establish clear procedures for the disqualification of judges for conflicts of interest and to require the disclosure of lawyers and litigants who have contributed to the campaigns of judges before whom they appear.

No one spoke against a resolution to that effect, and the measure enjoyed the endorsement of the Conference of Chief Justices. William Weisenberg, chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, said that the resolution would provide important guidance for state judges. It also would help remedy the perception among the public that judicial campaign contributions influence what happens in the courtroom, he said.

"No one should be a judge in his or her own case," Weisenberg said.

The resolution did not prescribe what measures states should take, but a committee report concluded that the need for clearer procedures and transparency was great.

"In recent years, judicial disqualification has emerged as an important policy issue in several states and an important focus of discussion and debate on ways to improve both the reality–and the public perception–of the fairness and impartiality of our court system," the committee wrote. "That focus has been sharpened because of intense public scrutiny and criticism in several highly publicized cases of refusals by judges to recuse themselves in circumstances where ‘the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.’ "

The committee cited the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law hailed the resolution for drawing attention to the issue. Before the vote, Senior Counsel Adam Skaggs said: "The Brennan Center has long advocated for reforming recusal practice in the states, and we are pleased the pending resolution calls for rules consistent with our two primary recommendations: providing for prompt, meaningful review when a challenged judge denies a recusal request, and requiring recusal when campaign spending raises reasonable questions about a judge’s impartiality."

Since 2007, the committee has been surveying judicial disqualification rules in different states and working to identify problems and propose reforms. The panel urged that states ensure that motions to disqualify a judge are handled promptly. States should have a prompt and clear avenue for review of a denied motion for disqualify, it said.

Under the resolution’s provision on campaign financing, the ABA urged states to adopt "disclosure requirements for litigants and lawyers who have provided, directly or indirectly, campaign support in an election involving a judge before whom they are appearing.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at [email protected].

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