Ethics Complaint Dismissed Against Judge Sykes of Seventh Circuit

, The National Law Journal

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7th Circuit Judge Diane Sykes

Chief Judge Diane Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has dismissed an ethics complaint filed against Judge Diane Sykes for her appearance with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Federalist Society's annual dinner Nov. 14.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and the heads of the liberal advocacy groups Alliance for Justice and Common Cause made a formal complaint alleging that Sykes violated the Code of Conduct for federal judges because the dinner was a fundraiser. The code forbids judges from participating in fundraising events. Sykes engaged Thomas in a dialogue after the Washington event, attended by more than 1,300 people.

But in a Dec. 5 memorandum, Wood said that based on a "limited inquiry," she determined that "the dinner in question was not a fundraiser," so the relevant canons "do not apply."

Wood wrote that according to information provided by the Federalist Society, dinner tickets were $200 or less, and the cost of putting the dinner on was more than $225 per person. The ticket prices were not out of line with other law-related events, Wood said. She added that listing dinner sponsors in the society's program was not uncommon and did not turn the event into a fundraiser. 

In a statement responding to Judge Wood, the Alliance for Justice said, “We respectfully disagree.” Citing materials it obtained since the first complaint, the alliance said numerous corporations and law firms were listed in the Federalist Society program as gold, silver and bronze sponsors for the dinner specifically. “Clearly you don’t earn that kind of special mention for only $200 a plate,” the statement said, also asserting that the fact an event loses money does not change its fundraising intent.

Common Cause and Alliance for Justice released "new evidence" on Dec. 5—the same day that Wood issued her memorandum—purporting to bolster its claim that the dinner was a fundraiser and noting that officials of sponsoring groups listed in the Federalist Society program were seated at the same table as Sykes and Thomas. The materials were also sent to Wood, the alliance said, but too late for her to read them before the Dec. 5 memorandum.

“The Federalist Society claims that, though their dinner looks like a fundraiser, sounds like a fundraiser and raises money like a fundraiser, somehow it’s not a fundraiser,” Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron said. “The evidence in these documents makes clear that the denial doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Slaughter and the two public interest groups also filed a complaint against Thomas. Supreme Court justices are not legally required to abide by the canons that govern lower court federal judges, so there is no formal complaint procedure. They sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. instead. Roberts has not replied.  

Separately, Slaughter presented a petition to the Supreme Court signed by 225,000 people demanding that Thomas be held accountable and that the high court adopt its own code of conduct. 

The action by Wood was first reported Dec. 11 on Bench Memos, a blog of the conservative publication National Review Online.

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