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Judges broke ethics law, report says

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen federal appeals court judges have violated federal conflict-of-interest laws during the past three years, throwing into doubt decisions in 26 cases, according to an analysis from a watchdog group.

The Center for Public Integrity, in a report being released Monday, found 24 cases in which judges ruled despite owning stock in a company appearing before them. In two other cases, the judges had financial ties to law firms representing one of the parties.

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When informed of the conflicts, all 16 judges sent letters to the parties involved in the cases, disclosing the violations. Several judges said their failure to withdraw from the cases was an oversight, the report said. Some judges had conflicts in more than one case.

In one 2011 case, Judge James Hill of the US Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta was part of a three-judge panel that affirmed a lower court verdict in favor of health care giant Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit on a malfunctioning medication pump. At the time of the decision, Hill owned as much as $100,000 in Johnson & Johnson stock, the report found.

The conflicts occurred despite a new policy adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States in 2006 that requires all US courts to conduct automated screenings to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Judges must disclose their financial holdings and each court must screen for conflicts on a regular basis. But the database is only as good as the information from the judges.

More than half of all appellate judges own corporate stock, according to the report.

US law requires judges who own even one share of stock in a firm appearing before them to disqualify themselves. The inquiry reviewed the three most recent years of financial disclosure data from 255 of the 258 judges who sit on the nation’s 13 federal appeals courts, and compared them against cases to find conflicts.

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