Looking Behind the Robe: Can You Disqualify Your Judge For Owning Stock?
Surprise! Judges are real people. They buy things like the rest of us. Sometimes they buy things – like stock – that might create bias, or at least the appearance of bias, in the cases over which they preside.
To address this issue, California law provides that a judge shall be automatically disqualified from a case if the judge owns a legal or equitable interest in a party to a case – like stock – that is worth more than $1,500.00. Recently, a California appellate court extended this rule to apply to the ownership of stock in the parent corporation of a wholly-owned subsidiary party to an action.
In that case, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Cricket Communications Inc. and New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC, both of which are wholly-owned subsidiaries of AT&T Corp., related to a commercial lease. After the plaintiff lost at trial, one of the judges who decided part of the case disclosed in his Form 700 (a public disclosure that judges and other elected officials must file each year) that he owned over $10,000 of stock in AT&T. The plaintiff filed a writ of error coram nobis – an extraordinary remedy to correct a previously unknown error – to nullify all acts taken by the judge. The appellate court granted the plaintiff’s writ by finding that (1) even though AT&T was not a party to the case, the judge’s ownership of AT&T stock constituted an “equitable” interest in its wholly-owned subsidiaries, Cricket and Cingular; and (2) plaintiff could not have reasonably discovered this interest before the trial because the judge had not yet disclosed this interest in his Form 700.
So what does this mean for you? Probably nothing, unless you have a case involving a publicly traded company. If so, the California Fair Political Practices Commission maintains a website at Form 700 Search (ca.gov) that allows you to search all Forms 700 filed by your judge so you can see if they own stock in that company, or its parent company. However, if this information is available at the start of your case, you cannot wait to see whether you lose before you try and disqualify your judge. But don’t worry, even if you do not have a case involving a publicly traded company, you can still use this website to see what stock any given judge or public official owns if you’re bored and/or just plain nosy.
In sum, the Legislature has put a priority on protecting the public from bias or even the appearance of bias by public officials, including judges. But that protection is only as good as the information you disrobe.
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