”I’ve got your back.” That’s what U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts said to his decades-long friend, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in introducing the AG at an April 22 speech at Vassar College. At that time, Judge Roberts was ignoring several legal deadlines to the benefit of Mr. Holder's administration on numerous motions and countermotions in a key lawsuit for which Mr. Holder’s underlings effectively were acting as defense attorneys.
Pressed by a higher court to justify his delays, Judge Roberts two months later ruled completely in the administration’s favor - tossing out the suit, without trial, of Gerald A. Walpin, the AmeriCorps inspector general whose investigations had embarrassed several of President Obama’s friends.
Mr. Walpin appealed Judge Roberts‘ decision for good reason. The court ruled, for example, that Mr. Walpin had not been “removed” from office prematurely, even though he had been denied all access to his office, files and staff. The judge even ignored a contemporaneous administration letter saying Mr. Walpin had been “removed.”
This was no mere technicality. Congress specifically required a 30-day notice for dismissing inspectors general (IGs) in order to avoid compromising ongoing investigations. As Mr. Walpin’s brief said, the firing will “have a corrosive, adverse impact on the watchdog purpose of the IG.”
Nevertheless, Judge Roberts first stalled the case for nearly a full year, then tried to kill it outright. Mr. Walpin’s appeal, citing the judge’s inexcusably missed deadlines, asked that the case not only be reinstated, but also reassigned to a different judge.
Reassignment makes sense for additional reasons. Judge Roberts‘ personal relationship with Mr. Holder extends, as Mr. Holder told the Vassar audience, “more years than most of you have probably been alive.” When Mr. Holder was U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., he made Mr. Roberts his principal deputy. When Mr. Holder was deputy attorney general in the Clinton Justice Department, Mr. Roberts served him as head of the Civil Rights Division’s criminal section. Mr. Holder had some authority in vetting Mr. Roberts‘ 1998 judicial nomination.
Mr. Walpin’s request for a new judge didn’t mention these ties, but he’s justified in doubting he can get a fair shake in the Roberts courtroom. A judge who “has the back” of the defense’s supervisory attorney should have disclosed his lack of objectivity upfront.
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