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The investing rules judges must follow

Judge Martin Feldman

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today he's going to come up with another way to get a drilling moratorium for the Gulf of Mexico. A federal judge in New Orleans threw out the administration's first pass at a six-month ban yesterday. Critics of that decision quickly discovered that the judge in the case, Martin Feldman, has held shares in a number of oil and gas firms, including Transocean -- the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig that's at the root of the current troubles.

We got to wondering, what sort of rules do federal judges have to follow when it comes to investing? Brett Neely has more.


Brett Neely: It's usually up to judges to decide whether they have a conflict of interest in a case.

There's one hard and fast financial rule, says law professor Charles Geyh at Indiana University.

Charles Geyh: Were he to own even a single share of stock in one of the companies that is in the middle of the litigation, he would have to step down.

That wasn't the case in yesterday's decision. Judge Feldman didn't own shares in the companies that sued over the government's ban on offshore drilling. But his most recent financial disclosures showed that he owned shares in several energy companies, including ones that drill in the Gulf of Mexico. Up to $15,000 worth of stock in each one. The judge hasn't responded to media requests for more detail.

Deborah Rhode: Once you have this issue raised, I think that's the kind of basis on which judges either need to make full and complete disclosures or take themselves off the case.

Deborah Rhode teaches legal ethics at Stanford Law School. She thinks more judges ought to put their assets in a blind trust so that there aren't these perceived conflicts of interest.

But law professor Geyh says it's also important to look at how those stock holdings relate to a judge's overall net worth.

Geyh: No reasonable person would say, "Were I a millionaire, the fact that my stock might drop from $15,000 to $12,000 is gonna really affect my judgment."

Maybe, but at least eight of Feldman's fellow federal judges in New Orleans have recused themselves from cases related to the BP oil spill. And others have sold off their oil and gas holdings so that they can hear the flood of lawsuits.

I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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Judges own stocks? Judges are human? Judges are absolutely fallible? Does this mean that life tenure doesn't really ensure a judge's impartiality? Does this mean that Sotomayor's comments that a judges decisions are influenced by that judges experiences was actually honest and true, and that critics of that statement are living in a fantasy world where humans and the law are "objective" without regard to their own biases?

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