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Ninth Circuit Addresses Question of Judicial Disability in Bankruptcy Case

Personal bankruptcy can be a complicated and difficult process, with debtors seeking to identify exempt assets while creditors attempt to maximize their recovery from the bankruptcy estate. When disputes arise among debtors, creditors, and court-appointed trustees, bankruptcy judges must consider the parties’ motions and make rulings regarding the bankruptcy estate. What happens, however, if a judge abuses their authority, or is unable to carry out their duties effectively? The Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit considers complaints against bankruptcy judges and other federal judges in California. A recent decision demonstrated the process of reporting and investigating alleged judicial misconduct or disability. In re Complaint of Judicial Misconduct (“Complaint”), No. 14-90084, order (9th Cir., Jul. 14, 2014).

The Judicial Conduct and Disability Act establishes procedures that allow anyone to file a complaint with the the court of appeals for alleged conduct that adversely affects “the effective and expeditious administration” of the court’s business, or alleged inability to perform all of a judge’s duties “by reason of mental or physical disability.” 28 U.S.C. § 351(a). According to the court’s order, the complaint alleged that a Ninth Circuit bankruptcy judge was “showing some early signs of dementia,” including “slow reaction time, moodiness and memory problems.” Complaint, order at 1.

The order provides no specific details regarding the complaint, but notes that complaints against judges are rare. The court further notes that lawyers often have the best vantage point to witness a judge’s conduct on the bench, but might be “reluctant to point an accusatory finger” at someone who will be deciding cases for them. Id. This can be a significant concern for both lawyers and the parties they represent.

A Ninth Circuit decision in a bankruptcy case that involved a complaint of judicial misconduct, In re Focus Media, Inc., 378 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2004), demonstrates how this concern might affect a debtor. The debtor, a corporation, claimed he bankruptcy judge was biased against it, in part because the judge referred in open court to a misconduct complaint filed against her by one of its officers. The appellate court, while acknowledging that “the situation was perhaps unusual,” id. at 930, held that the misconduct complaint was relevant to questions of the officer’s credibility, and found that the debtor had produced “no evidence of real bias.” Id.

In the present order, the court explains that it undertook a “limited inquiry,” Complaint at 2, pursuant to Rule 11(b) of the Ninth Circuit’s Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings (Judicial-Conduct Rules). The complainant reportedly identified behaviors that appeared consistent with dementia, but not specific cases or hearing dates when the signs of dementia would have been noticeable. The court’s investigation therefore involved interviewing other judges who work with the subject judge and appellate judges who routinely review the subject judge’s decisions, all of whom reportedly “expressed their continued confidence” in the judge’s abilities. Complaint at 2.

A review of three years’ worth of appeals of the subject judge’s cases to the Ninth Circuit additionally identified no issues regarding the judge’s competence. The court dismissed the complaint, finding insufficient allegations to “raise an inference that…a disability exists.” Judicial-Conduct Rule 11(c)(1)(D), 28 U.S.C. § 352(b)(1)(A)(iii).

Bankruptcy attorney Devin Sawdayi has represented clients in the Los Angeles area in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases since 1997, helping them repair their finances with dignity and respect. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today online or at (310) 475-9399.

More Blog Posts:

Court Allows Mortgage Lender to Enforce Lien Against Property Years After Chapter 7 Discharge, Los Angeles Bankruptcy Lawyer Blawg, June 6, 2014

Supreme Court Rules Bankruptcy Trustee Cannot Use Exempt Assets to Pay Expenses, Even If Caused by Debtor Misconduct, Los Angeles Bankruptcy Lawyer Blawg, May 31, 2014

California Bankruptcy Court Rules on Debtor’s Motion to Withdraw Reference, Which Would Transfer Proceeding to District Court, Los Angeles Bankruptcy Lawyer Blawg, April 22, 2014


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