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UH Law Center judicial ethics expert Jefferson testifies before Congressional subcommittee about judges violating law on financial interests

Professor Renee Knake Jefferson

Professor Renee Knake Jefferson

Oct. 26, 2021 – University of Houston Law Center Professor Renee Knake Jefferson appeared today before the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. She testified about the Wall Street Journal investigation that exposed judges presiding over cases in which they or their family members owned stock in violation of a federal law,  28 U.S.C. § 455.

Jefferson called for “the federal judiciary to shift from a culture of silence to a culture of compliance.” She proposed reforms including greater reporting and transparency when judges face conflicts of interest or other prejudicial influences on their decision-making.

“Transparent, aggregated data about recusals, made easily available to the public at no cost, would be a powerful enforcement mechanism. Access to this sort of information facilitates prevention through accountability and education,” said Jefferson.

She also called for Congress to hold the Supreme Court of the United States subject to a culture of compliance with ethics rules. “All federal judges are governed by a code of ethics except for nine—the—the justices of the Supreme Court,” said Jefferson. “Because the Supreme Court has declined to adopt a code for itself, this Subcommittee can and should support legislation calling for it to do so. Congress has authority under the U.S. Constitution to require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics and to specify particular topics that must be covered, for example financial investments, personal bias, prior work on the matter in controversy, and other potential conflicts or influences.”

Jefferson, whose scholarship focuses on judicial ethics, lawyer ethics, and the Supreme Court is available for media inquiries on:

  • the Wall Street Journal investigation documenting that 131 federal judges presided over 685 cases from 2010-2018 involving companies in which they or their family members owned stock in violation of 28 U.S.C. § 455
  • judicial reforms including greater accountability for removing judges from cases when they have financial interests and implementing a code of ethics for the Supreme Court

A copy of Jefferson’s written testimony is available here.

In recent her book “SHORTLISTED: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court” (New York University Press, May 2020), Jefferson and co-author Hannah Brenner Johnson examine the personal and professional lives of nine women who were considered, and ultimately passed over, for seats on the Supreme Court before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first.  

The book has been called, “fascinating” by Linda Greenhouse, New York Times Supreme Court columnist, and “an important addition to the literature about the Supreme Court, the process of nominating justices, and the role of gender,” by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Jefferson holds the Joanne and Larry Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics and is director of Law Center Outcomes and Assessments. She earned her J.D. at the University of Chicago Law School, and teaches Constitutional Law, Professional Responsibility, and a seminar on Gender, Power, Law & Leadership at the Law Center. She is a Fulbright recipient and an elected member of the American Law Institute.

In December 2019, Jefferson was appointed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to fill a vacancy on the Michigan State Board of Trustees, as the university recovers from a sex abuse scandal involving a gymnastics team doctor that resulted in criminal charges, top level resignations, a federal fine of $4.5 million for failing to report and address the abuse claims, and a $500 million civil settlement with abused young women. In announcing the appointment, Whitmer said Jefferson will ensure that MSU “embodies a culture that respects diversity, values and listens to all survivors, and makes college education more affordable and accessible for Michigan families. I’m confident that Renee’s professional background and unique skillset is what Michigan State University needs right now.”

Jefferson’s work is regularly featured in national media, including CNN, the New York Times, Politico, National Public Radio, and the Wall Street Journal. She has appeared on Houston-based NBC affiliate KPRC news and MSNBC’s The Week with Joshua Johnson.

Members of the news media interested in interviewing Professor Jefferson should contact a UH Law Center media representative listed below.

UHLC media contacts: Carrie Anna Criado, UH Law Center Assistant Dean of Communications and Marketing, 713-743-2184, cacriado@central.uh.edu; Elena Hawthorne, Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing, 713-743-1125, ehawthor@central.uh.edu; and John Brannen, Media Relations Rep, 713-743-3055, jtbranne@central.uh.edu.

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