An ethics panel has publicly admonished U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman for a March law review article criticizing some U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The longtime Milwaukee jurist created a bit of stir with his piece, “The Roberts Court’s Assault on Democracy” in the Harvard Law & Policy Review. He identifies two key ways the court erodes democracy: by making it harder for the poor and minorities to vote, and by “reinforcing the enormous imbalance in wealth and political power” in America.
While most of the article deals with the substance of various decisions, Adelman’s opening to the piece set many readers off:
“By now it is a truism that Chief Justice John Roberts’ statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that a Supreme Court justice’s role is the passive one of a neutral baseball ‘umpire who (merely) calls the balls and strikes,’ was a masterpiece of disingenuousness. Roberts’ misleading testimony inevitably comes to mind when one considers the course of decision‐making by the Court over which he presides.”
People from North Carolina, California and a couple from Iowa filed formal complaints about Adelman with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
“These complaints and the article implicate several provisions of the Code of Conduct and competing policy considerations in an area of judicial ethics where there is ample room for disagreement,” reads the unsigned ten-page decision from the 7th Circuit’s judicial council.
“The nation has a long tradition of vigorous public debate over Supreme Court decisions, and judges, including judges in the district and circuit courts, have long participated in those debates. Judges are able to bring special insight and perspective to those debates.
“At the same time, judges also have special responsibilities stemming from their roles in dispensing even‐handed justice in all cases that come before them and in strengthening public confidence in the judiciary.”
The decision summarizes Adelman’s article, the complainants’ views about it, and the history of judges speaking out. It notes that most of Adelman’s article addresses the substance of various Supreme Court decisions on voting access and campaign finance, and that the harshest criticisms come from dissenting opinions in those very cases.
“More concerning, however, are the opening two sentences of the article and the criticisms of recent policy positions taken by one political party,” the decision reads.
The public could reasonably read them as an attack on Chief Justice John Roberts’ integrity, it read, and Adelman’s comments about the Republican Party could cause someone to question his impartiality “in matters implicating partisan or ideological concerns.”
In a letter to Chief Judge Diane Wood, Adelman agreed his words could be interpreted in ways he didn’t intend, that his remarks about Roberts “were inappropriately worded,” and could be interpreted in ways he didn’t intend and he regretted not being more careful.
Adelman also reaffirmed his commitment to the impartial administration of justice in all cases regardless of the nature of the case or the identity of the parties.
Adelman, 80, went to Princeton and Columbia Law School. He served 20 years in the Wisconsin Senate, as a Democrat, until President Bill Clinton nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in 1997.