WASHINGTON — A federal district judge in Wyoming violated ethics laws by hearing a case that stood to affect his significant financial interests in oil and gas companies, judicial and environmental watchdog groups charged Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer last month struck down a Clinton-era policy that banned road building on 58.5 million acres of national forest land.
In his opinion, the judge said one result of the so-called roadless rule was that "one could not meaningfully explore or drill for oil and gas without access by road into the roadless areas."
Brimmer's financial disclosure report shows that as of the end of 2001, he held stock or royalty interests worth a total of $400,000 to $1.1 million in 15 oil and gas concerns. These holdings accounted for about half of his assets.
Efforts to obtain updated information on the judge's financial holdings were unsuccessful.
Brimmer, responding to the charges in a written statement, said the conditions under which a judge should disqualify himself "do not present themselves" in the case involving the roadless rule. His financial holdings include oil and gas companies, he said, but those companies were not parties to the suit.
Two judicial watchdog groups filed a complaint with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals requesting that the judge be publicly reprimanded and prevented from ruling in any further cases involving oil and gas interests.
"Both the importance of the case and the size of Judge Brimmer's holdings make this stand out as an egregious example of a case in which a judge's [personal financial] interests are at stake," said Douglas T. Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, an environmental law and judicial watchdog group.
The judge's conduct "severely undermines the credibility of the judiciary, the hallmarks of which are supposed to be objectivity and fairness," added Melanie Sloan, director of the Washington-based legal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.
Both federal law and judicial rules direct judges to disqualify themselves from cases if they have financial interests in the parties, the subject matter or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome.
Judges are responsible for avoiding conflicts of interest.
"It's rare that it happens, and when it does it's often inadvertent," said Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at the New York University Law School. "This can't be inadvertent because he has half his wealth in oil and gas."
Judges are rarely disciplined for conflicts of interest. Although employees of the executive branch can be fired for such conduct, federal judges can lose their jobs only through impeachment.
Environmental groups that participated in the roadless rule case, known as Wyoming vs. U.S. Department of Agriculture, plan to appeal Brimmer's ruling.
The roadless rule, one of the most sweeping land conservation initiatives in decades, has been on a roller-coaster ride in the courts since it was put in place at the end of the Clinton administration.
A district judge in Idaho issued a preliminary injunction in May 2001 blocking the policy.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned that ruling in December 2002 and stressed that the plaintiffs did not have a strong chance of prevailing.
That put the roadless rule back into effect until Brimmer's ruling last month.
His ruling trumped the other court actions because he was the first to rule on the merits of the case.
The Bush administration last month proposed excluding Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, from the roadless rule and gave notice that it planned to propose in September to exempt the Chugach National Forest, also in Alaska, as well.
Administration officials also announced that they would propose giving states the authority to opt out of the roadless rule.