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Court Says Federal Judges May Be Disqualified From Presiding Over Some Cases

June 17, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal judges may be disqualified from presiding over cases even when they are unaware during trial of their personal connection to the cases, the Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5-4 ruling in a case from Louisiana, the court said the appearance of a conflict of interest is grounds for a judge to disqualify himself from presiding.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, said even if a judge is unaware of a possible conflict while presiding over a case he later should disqualify himself when he learns of his connection.

The judge’s initial lack of knowledge of the possible conflict ″does not eliminate the risk that his impartiality might reasonably be questioned by other persons,″ Stevens said.

In such instances, the judge ″is called upon to rectify an oversight and to take the steps necessary to maintain public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,″ Stevens said.

The case stems from a dispute over ownership of a hospital corporation. It began in 1981 when Health Services Acquisition Corp. filed a federal lawsuit against John Liljeberg over ownership of a corporation known as St. Jude Hospital of Kenner, La.

St. Jude Hospital had a state certificate of approval to build a new facility.

U.S. District Judge Robert F. Collins ruled on March 16, 1982, in favor of Liljeberg.

But the following year Health Services Acquisition learned that Collins was a member of the board of trustees of Loyola University, which had been negotiating with Liljeberg to sell him property for a new hospital.

Liljeberg’s ability to build the hospital depended on his success in obtaining the St. Jude certificate of approval.

Health Services Acquisition went back to court seeking to disqualify Collins and throw out his ruling that favored Liljeberg.

Collins refused to disqualify himself. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court overruled him and threw out the judgment favoring Liljeberg.

In upholding the appeals court ruling, the Supreme Court said Collins should have disqualified himself when he became aware of his connection to the case even though he had a temporary memory lapse about his ties during the trial.

Dissenting today were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor.

The case is Liljeberg vs. Health Services Acquisition., 86-957.

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