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Answer to ethics question helped to guide CSA judges in Exxon Mobil opinion

Maybe we could’ve seen coming the confusion over the Court of Special Appeals’ in banc hearing of Exxon Mobil’s appeal of Jacksonville residents’ $150 million jury verdict. After all, the judges themselves were concerned about who could hear the case.

The Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee issued an opinion last August — one month before the hearing — titled “Circumstances In Which Appellate Judge May Participate In Appellate Review Involving A Corporate Appellant In Which Such Judge Owns Or Has Owned Stock.”

(The “corporate appellant” is Exxon Mobil, unless there was another party in Maryland appealing what the ethics opinion calls a “$147 million judgment” that I and my colleagues did not know about.)

Anyways, the ethics opinion discusses three unnamed judges facing the following dilemmas:

— Judge A and Judge A’s spouse own shares of the Exxon Mobil, and the company is also in Judge A’s IRA.

— Judge B’s IRA formerly included 75 shares of the stock sold during the summer at a profit “for reasons completely unrelated to” the pending appeal, according to the ethics opinion.

— Judge C owns 350 shares of Exxon Mobil stock. Judge C acquired such shares within the last year but has not indicated the current value of such ownership.

The opinion concluded that Judge B could hear the case because the judge no longer had a financial interest in Exxon Mobil. On the other hand, “to the extent a particular disposition of the pending appeal might ‘substantially affect’ the values of the interests of Judges A and C in the appellant, and thereby cause such judges’ impartiality to reasonably be questioned, they should disqualify themselves,” the opinion states.

Judge James R. Eyler, the committee’s chairman, and retired Judge James A. Kenney III, a committee member, recused themselves from the ethics opinion.

Incidentally, Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser and Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. and Judge Christopher B. Kehoe recused themselves from the in banc court’s 321-page opinion.