Ruling under fire as "conflict of interest"
A federal judge who accepted a Tulane University teaching assignment in Greece the day before she threw out a lawsuit against the university is under scrutiny before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The motion on behalf of former biochemistry professor Carl Bernofsky asks the full court to reconsider a recent decision by a sharply divided three-judge panel to throw out the case. Bernofsky claims that the university maligned him to prospective employers after firing him and that U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan had a conflict of interest when she threw out his case.
Berrigan was one of three jurists with connections to Tulane when Bernofsky filed his libel lawsuit. The other two, who were magistrates, removed themselves from consideration to preside over the case.
Berrigan's relationship with Tulane began before she accepted the overseas assignment. She did some part-time teaching at the law school and sat on the board of the Amistad Research Center, which is legally separate from the university but housed on its campus.
In a dissent in last month's three-judge panel ruling upholding Berrigan's decision to throw out Bernofsky's claims, 5th Circuit Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King said a reasonable person would have viewed the summer teaching assignment and its $5,500 pay "as something of a plum."
"I think that a reasonable person might question her impartiality," King said, adding that she would have reversed Berrigan's judgment and sent the case back to the district court for assignment to another judge.
Berrigan, in written explanations to the appeals court, said that, under case law, she had an obligation not to recuse herself but welcomed guidance from a higher court.
"It was a pure legal issue, not involving factual findings or credibility calls," Berrigan said.
Copyright 2001, Capital City Press, Baton Rouge, La.
From: The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., May 9, 2001, p. 7-B. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.