Chief Judge Wood Dismissed Ethics Violation Allegations Against Judge Sykes

December 11th, 2013

Bench Memos reports on a short, two-page memorandum from Chief Judge Wood, dismissing the ethics violation charges against Judge Sykes for speaking at the Federalist Society dinner last month.

As required by 28 U.S.C. § 352(a) andRule 11 of the Rules forJudicial‐Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings, I have reviewed this Complaint. I determined that a limited inquiry, as permitted by section 352(a) and Rule 11(b), was appropriate, and so I wrote to the subject judge and obtained the judge’s written response to the Complaint. That response made clear that the pivotal initial question is whether the Society’s annual dinner is, as a factual matter, a fund‐raising event. In order to answer that question, I contacted the Executive Vice President of the Society for further information. His response, which appears as Appendix 1 to this Memorandum, reports that the Society’s out‐of‐pocket cost for the annual dinner is just over $225 per person. Tickets cost $175 for active members of the Society and $200 for non‐members. The brochure for the annual meeting lists these prices. There is no indication anywhere that any amount of the ticket is earmarked as a charitable or other contribution to the Society. To the contrary, as the information from the organization indicates, the price does not even cover the full cost of the event.

I considered whether the listing of sponsors on the dinner program could somehow require characterization of the dinner as a fund‐raising event, but I concluded that nothing in Canon 4(C) or Canon 2(B) supports such a conclusion. Many organizations devoted to the legal system hold comparable events; the price of dinners is approximately $200 per ticket. See, for example, Appendix 2, showing that the cost of the annual reception and dinner for the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s 62nd Annual Meeting, May 5‐7, 2013, was $200, or $100 for judges and government lawyers. Bar and legal reform organizations commonly receive corporate and law‐firm support, and that support is acknowledged in the meeting pamphlet. See Appendix 3, the Program Guide for the American Bar Association’s 2013 Annual Meeting, which is supported by the private organizations listed in the Expo Guide.

Based on this initial review, I have concluded that this Complaint should be dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 352(b)(1)(B), because my limited inquiry, conducted under subsection (a), demonstrates that the allegations in the Complaint “lack any factual foundation or are conclusively refuted by objective evidence.” See also Rule 11(c)(1)(A), requiring dismissal of a complaint if it “alleges conduct that, even if true, is not prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts … .” The dinner in question was not a fund‐raiser, and so the Canons prohibiting judges from appearing as the speaker or featured participant in fund‐raisers do not apply.

As Carrie Severino notes, Justices routinely speak at ACS events, which are structured in the same fashion as Federalist Society events.

These baseless accusations are all the more absurd when viewed in contrast to the American Constitution Society, a liberal group that aspires to replicate the Federalist Society’s success but from the opposite philosophical perspective. That organization also regularly has Supreme Court Justices speak at its conferences. Last year retired Justice John Paul Stevens spoke. The previous year it was (active) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The speaker list includes a host of other federal judges. And their sponsor list includes corporations and law firms, many of which are the same ones who have sponsored the Federalist Society’s conference. If speaking at an event with corporate or law-firm sponsors actually did violate ethical rules, it would implicate judges across the spectrum, not only Justice Thomas and Judge Sykes.