A judge, to whom a fee may become due as a result of a case initiated by the judge as a lawyer prior to taking the bench, should not hear any matter prosecuted or defended by a lawyer connected with the law firm to which the case was referred, as long as the judge continues to have a financial interest in the outcome of the referred case.
References: MCJC 1, 2A.
Before becoming a judge, a lawyer represented a plaintiff in a class action suit. After becoming a judge, the judge obtained the client's permission to refer the case to a large metropolitan firm located within the jurisdiction of the judge's court. The suit is complex and is expected to continue for some years. The referral arrangement between the judge and the law firm entitles the judge to a substantial lawyer fee should the plaintiff ultimately prevail.
The firm in question has many cases pending in the jurisdiction. The judge asks whether recusal is required whenever the law firm appears before the judge on matters unrelated to the referred case and while the referred case remains pending.
The committee assumes that the law firm to which the case was referred is not the firm for which the judge worked prior to taking the bench. It also assumes that the referral agreement conforms to the requirements of MCPR DR 2-107(A) on the subject of division of fees among lawyers. MCPR DR 2-107(A) says that a lawyer shall not divide a fee for legal services with another lawyer who is not a partner in or an associate of the lawyer's law firm or office unless three requirements are met:
The client consents to the employment of the other lawyer or firm after being fully informed of the details concerning the division of fees.
The division of fees among the lawyer is in proportion to services performed and responsibility assumed by each.
The total fee to be received by all lawyers for all legal services rendered the client is reasonable. Factors to be considered as guidelines in determining the reasonableness of a fee are set forth in MCPR DR 2-106(B).
A judge is disqualified on the basis of self-interest from participating in any matter in which the judge was interested as a lawyer prior to taking the bench. GCR 912.2(3). [Now MCR 2.003(B), Editor's note]
Cases in which the judge did not act as counsel prior to taking the bench are governed by the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct, particularly MCJC 2A:
"A. Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. He must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. He must therefore accept restrictions on his conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly." Emphasis added.
An honorable and independent judiciary is an indispensable feature of justice in American society. MCJC 1. A judge should always avoid a situation tending to cast a doubt upon judicial integrity.
A lawyer elected or appointed to the bench has an ethical duty to assist clients in finding substitute counsel. In litigation involving contingent fees, the problem of fairly compensating a new member of the bench for legal services rendered before becoming a judge is extremely sensitive. To deny a newly-elected judge just compensation for valued service performed while a practicing lawyer would be inequitable and would tend to discourage qualified persons from accepting judicial office. Similarly consideration must be given to the client who is compelled to employ the services of a new lawyer during the pendency of a case.
But consider the aura of mistrust created in the mind of a losing litigant who learns that the judge had an ongoing financial arrangement with the opposition's law firm. Most judges will likely perform their judicial duties impartially. However, there would at least remain a subtle suggestion that the judge has a predetermined confidence in the ability and integrity of the firm to which the judge has referred his or her own clients.
An impartial judiciary - in both fact and appearance - is essential to our system of justice. When a judge has a financial relationship with anyone representing a litigant, the judge's impartiality is subject to scrutiny. On a close question, might the judge tip the scale of justice in favor of the side with which the judge has a special interest? Or might the judge unnecessarily compromise, to avoid the appearance of treating one party unfairly? Such speculation should be removed from the proceeding.
Ethical considerations require that a judge recuse from hearing any matter handled by a lawyer connected with a law firm to which the judge has referred a case, so long as the judge has a continuing financial interest in the outcome of any case handled by any lawyer connected with that firm. In arriving at this result, the committee is not unmindful of the likely reluctance of local practitioners to accept referral of cases initiated by a judge prior to taking the bench, and the attendant inconvenience to former clients of the newly-elected judge. The problem will be particularly troublesome in a one-judge district or circuit. Nonetheless, the committee believes the appearance of an honorable, independent judiciary outweighs any inconvenience to the bench and the populace.