President Donald Trump has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for his recent pardon, including corrupt ex-Congressmen and the father of Jared Kushner. I was one of those people who immediately criticized these pardons as manifestly unjustified and harmful to our legal system. However, none of this makes the comments made by senior U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt of the Southern District of Iowa any less troubling. Judge Pratt gave an interview in which he criticized the pardons, contrary to the rules of judicial ethics, that prevented lawyers from engaging in such political comments.
I previously criticized Judge Emmet Sullivan for using his courtroom to voice complaints against President Trump. However, Platt waived any claim to judicial function when he expressed his complaints about the pardons. He told the Associated Press: “It is not surprising that a criminal like Trump pardons other criminals. But to get an apology, you have to be either a Republican, a convicted child murderer, or a turkey. “
Pratt discussed pardons, which included former Ron Paul campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, and campaign manager, John Tate. Here, too, I am not concerned with the merits, but with the messenger.
Pratt was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and continues to be an active judge on a reduced protocol as a Senior Status Judge. As such, it is still subject to the Code of Ethics. State judges have been punished for indulging in temptations to express their opposition or criticism of Trump. However, federal judges participated in such public comments without sanctions.
Pratt’s comments raise serious questions among three of the most fundamental principles of judicial ethics that prevent judges from engaging in political activities and positions:
A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and avoid inappropriateness and appearances of inappropriateness.
A judge conducts the judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the duties of the judicial office.
A judge or a candidate for a judicial office must not engage in political or campaign-related activities that are incompatible with the independence, integrity or impartiality of the judiciary.
Calling the President of the United States a criminal and denouncing pardons seems to openly engage in political comment or activity. It is a worrying rejection of judges’ longstanding avoidance of such comments in order to preserve the impartiality of the judiciary.
To make matters worse, Pratt was implicated in Sorenson’s case. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2017 – a surprising departure from prosecutor’s recommended parole due to Sorenson’s guilty plea and collaboration. Indeed, Sorenson helped convict Benton, Tate and Paul’s former deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari. His conviction was troubling to many of us in the Defense Chamber, as the parole recommendation was consistent with previous collaborative cases. Pratt’s judgment was not. Nevertheless, the judgment was at his discretion.
A federal judge has the right to harshly convict defendants for conduct they believe warrant additional punishment. However, this should be the full extent of their role. They are not great inquisitors who continue to prosecute or convict defendants. They are certainly not suitable figures to denounce such people when they receive commutations or pardons. This is not personal vengeance, and judges should not be viewed as the eradication of public sentiment against previously convicted defendants. Even if a judge leaves the bank, I would advocate continued reluctance to make such public comments. However, Pratt has not left the bank. He still hears cases while engaging in political commentary.
Much like how Judge Sullivan uses his final order to convict former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, it is an unfounded and ill-considered act. Indeed, as a comment outside the courtroom, Pratt is more disturbing than Sullivan’s. Republicans and even Trump employees could face Pratt in future cases – a lawyer giving public interviews denouncing Trump as a criminal.
Unsurprisingly, Pratt received little praise. Let’s call it another example of trumpunity in our time of anger and hypocrisy. Legal ethicists and experts have stretched the ethical rules to the breaking point to support action against Republican lawyers for election filing. Yet they are conspicuously silent about this controversy. Indeed, many Democrats have recently denounced public comments by Justice Samuel Alito, but have no criticism of Pratt or liberal lawyers like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in far more serious public comments.
What Pratt said publicly was wrong. This undermines not only his credibility, but also that of his court and his other colleagues.