Judge Recusals May Hinder Gulf Oil Spill LawsuitsAt least seven federal judges in New Orleans have stepped aside from handling oil spill lawsuits because of conflicts of interest. Experts say if more judge recusals arise in the Gulf, the courts eventually may have to move the cases to another part of the country.
A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
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President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
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A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
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President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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Lawsuits over the Gulf oil spill are flooding the courts. Homeowners, fishermen and environmental groups are all trying to recover damages they suffered because of the gusher.
But victims of the spill are beginning to encounter a new complication: judges who can't hear their cases because of conflicts of interest.
In the past, lawyers often complained when judges refused to step aside from cases in which they had a financial or personal interest.
That process is called recusal. The federal court bureaucracy doesn't keep data reflecting how often this happens.
But legal expert Richard Flamm, who wrote a critical text on judge disqualifications, said the current protest cut against the grain. "Most of the time the complaint about judges is not that they recuse themselves too readily, or en masse, but that they refuse to recuse themselves when they should do so."
Lately, the opposite problem is coming into play.
The federal appeals court in New Orleans recently said it couldn't decide a major global warming case because eight out of 16 judges stepped aside for one reason or another.
Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet said he's never heard of such a thing. "This is an extremely unusual situation where half of the judges in the full circuit have disqualified themselves," Lubet said.
Lawyers who handle high-stakes cases are baffled. The appeals court case in New Orleans was at the forefront of a wave of lawsuits over climate change. Now, there's confusion about where the lawsuit stands, and how the issue may get to the U.S. Supreme Court for an ultimate resolution.
Trent Taylor, a lawyer who works on environmental issues, said the sheer number of companies involved in the climate change case most likely knocked out a lot of judges. "We're talking about 50 to 100 separate defendants, including some of the largest corporations in America," Taylor said. "It's something where a great number of Americans including judges own stock."
The rules on judicial disqualifications are clear.
Judge Margaret McKeown recently explained the issue to Congress. "Even owning a single share of stock in a party mandates recusal," McKeown told the House Judiciary Committee last year.
Congress put the rules in place after Watergate. Since then, there have been few changes.
Lawyers predict the troubles will continue in the oil spill cases. At least seven federal judges in New Orleans already have stepped aside from handling oil spill lawsuits. That leaves only a handful of others at the courthouse who could hear these landmark disputes.
Some of the judges recused themselves because their relatives are working on the issues. Others say they own stock in BP, Halliburton and Transocean — companies that are at the center of the sunken rig.
Taylor said there could be another explanation for the disqualifications: There are multiple class action lawsuits being filed on behalf of homeowners. "A great number of these judges may be property owners in that area," Taylor said. "So theoretically it means a great number of judges in this area are actually potential plaintiffs."
The recusal issue has even surfaced in the nation's highest court. Two years ago, the Supreme Court refused to weigh in on a lawsuit filed by victims of apartheid in South Africa, because too many justices said they couldn't hear the case.
Several justices own substantial stock holdings. And others have children who work for major corporations, including some that did business in the country during the apartheid era.
The decision meant that a lower court ruling would stay in place.
Experts say if more judge recusals arise in the Gulf, the courts eventually may have to move the cases to another part of the country. Lawyers are floating proposals to send the cases to Alabama, Mississippi or even to a judge based in New York.
But that would add another layer of inconvenience to victims of the spill.