Earlier this summer, a block on oil spill settlement payments stemming from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was lifted. US District Judge Carl Barbier ordered BP’s claims adjuster Patrick Juneau to begin processing and paying claims again, even though BP is asking the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to review the ruling.
While no decision has been made yet on whether or not the Court will hear BP’s case, plaintiffs and their attorneys are worried that, if it does, they might not get a fair ruling since members of the Court have ties to BP.
Both Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito have a son who works at Gibson Dunn, a multinational law firm that is handling BP’s appeals. Alito’s son, Phil, became an associate with the firm’s Washington DC office last August, and Scalia’s son, Eugene, has been with the firm for over a decade and was made a full partner in 2003.
While both judges have ties to the law firm, Eugene Scalia’s status as a partner means he shares profits from all the firm’s cases, which presents a clear conflict of interest for Justice Scalia.
According to US law, federal judges must recuse themselves from a case if their “impartiality might be reasonably questioned” or if a close relative or close relative’s spouse “is known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.”
The Supreme Court, however, has its own recusal policy, set by seven of the nine justices — including Scalia — on the Court in 1993 and also adopted by Chief Justice Roberts in the current Court. Its policy says that “if a covered relative is an associate in a law firm involved in a case before the Court, but has not taken part in the Court or previously, the Justice will be free to participate,” according to the SCOTUS blog.
The policy also states that “if the relative is a partner in a firm appearing before the court, the Justice would recuse in any case involving that firm ‘unless we have received from the firm written assurance that income from Supreme Court litigation is, on a permanent basis, excluded from our relatives’ partnership shares.”
Gibson Dunn informed the Court in 2003 that Eugene Scalia’s portion of profits from SCOTUS cases would be withheld, but that doesn’t change the fact that both Justices’ impartiality might be questioned.
Even though the self-imposed recusal policy doesn’t mandate that the Justices step down in any BP case that might make it to the Court, both Scalia and Alito should. It would show the plaintiffs that SCOTUS has no bias towards BP and intends to give them a fair shot at getting the billions in damages that BP has fought so hard to avoid paying.