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Court Refuses to Disqualify Judge in Puerto Rico Fire Case

May 29, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to disqualify a federal judge from presiding over the trial of a lawsuit stemming from a Puerto Rico hotel fire that claimed 97 lives.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that the judge has no apparent conflict of interest that reasonably could shake public confidence in the trial’s fairness.

The 1986 New Year’s Eve fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan led to what has been called the nation’s biggest mass-disaster lawsuit. More than 2,300 people sued more than 200 defendants for $1.8 billion.

The case, assigned to U.S. District Judge Raymond Acosta in San Juan, produced a partial settlement in which the hotel’s corporate owners agreed to pay $85 million in claims.

The settlement was negotiated in Philadelphia under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Louis C. Bechtle, who was assigned to help Acosta.

A big chunk of the case still is being tried in Acosta’s court, where dozens of the hotel’s product and service suppliers are being sued.

Some of those companies asked Acosta to remove himself from the trial because two of his law clerks have brothers who are lawyers representing plaintiffs in the case.

Acosta refused to disqualify himself, and his decision was upheld last December by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court noted that federal law requires a judge to disqualify himself ″in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.″

But the appeals court said there is insufficient reason to suspect a conflict of interest for Acosta.

″Judges, not law clerks, make the decisions,″ the appeals court said.

Moreover, the appeals court said, it is likely any law clerk in San Juan could have a sibling involved where such a large case is being tried in a relatively small city with a limited number of lawyers.

″A knowledgeable objective observer is therefore more likely to see the relation as implicit in the special circumstances rather than as an odd coincidence ... which might suggest bias,″ the appeals court added.

The appeals court also said there is good reason to retain the law clerks as well as Acosta in the case because the clerks are knowledgeable and experienced career employees playing an important role in ″the effective management of this highly complex litigation.″

The clerks are Richard Graffam and Vilma Vila.

The companies seeking to disqualify Acosta and force a mistrial told the justices, ″There can be no doubt that the public would question the partiality of a proceeding in which the rulings of the court have been fashioned in chambers with the help of law clerks whose siblings stood to benefit directly from those rulings.″

The defendants, who discovered on their own that the clerks were related to lawyers in the case, also criticized Acosta for not revealing the connection himself.

The case is ACW Airwall vs. U.S. District Court, 89-1472.

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