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Sometimes abstention is right call

People attending a school board or municipal government meeting often are puzzled when a member of one of those elected bodies chooses to abstain from voting on a particular agenda item or issue.

Perhaps, most of those people soon learn that the abstention was the means by which the member in question made the correct decision regarding something that would have been a conflict of interest, if he or she had voted.

For example, on the school board front, perhaps the board member who abstained did so because a son, daughter or other relative was on the list of people being hired as teachers.

On the municipal government front, perhaps the abstention was due to the councilman or supervisor being a past or present employee of a company being considered for a contract.

People serving in such elected positions are expected to know and abide by rules in place to prevent conflicts between their own private interests and their official responsibilities as a person in a position of trust.

Those who violate conflict-of-interest laws deserve the penalties applicable to the offense, no matter how exemplary their other service might be.

It is important for people to have an understanding of conflict of interest, especially now that the Wall Street Journal has released “bombshell” findings from its extensive investigation into federal judges who failed to recuse themselves from hearing cases over which they should not have presided.

Here is the most troubling finding of that investigation, which the Journal outlined in more than two full pages of its Sept. 29 edition:

“More than 130 federal judges have violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.”

The newspaper went on to say that judges improperly failed to disqualify themselves from 685 court cases around the nation since 2010. According to the Journal, the judges in question were appointed by nearly every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Donald Trump.

The Sept. 29 article said the U.S. Supreme Court was not part of the Journal’s analysis, nor did the analysis include bankruptcy and magistrate judges.

Federal law since 1974, while not barring judges from owning stocks, has prohibited them from hearing cases that involve a party in which they, their spouses or their minor children have a “legal or equitable interest, however small.”

The law and the Judicial Conference of the U.S. — the federal courts’ policy-making body — require judges to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.

The U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1988 that the law’s goal is to promote confidence in the judiciary.

Based on what the Journal has reported, instead of confidence, it would seem that people of this nation have plenty of justification for lack of confidence. Beyond that, this nation’s people should begin clamoring for punishment of the violators, where punishment is warranted.

The Journal reported that, already, a number of parties on the losing side of rulings have petitioned for a new judge to hear their cases.

The scope of the problem that the Journal investigation uncovered is an atrocity. According to the Journal’s investigation, no judges in modern times have been removed from the federal bench solely for having a financial interest in a plaintiff or defendant who appeared in their courtroom.

Judging from the cases that the Journal examined and the volume of violations, perhaps it is time for that to change.

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