A federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy filing from the US’s second-oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese has recused himself from the case amid scrutiny of his donations to the church as well as his close professional relationship with an attorney representing archdiocesan affiliates in insurance disputes.
Greg Guidry, who was appointed to the judicial bench at New Orleans’s federal courthouse by the Donald Trump White House in 2019, issued an order after 8pm on Friday recusing himself from a role handling appeals in a contentious bankruptcy involving nearly 500 clergy sexual abuse victims.
It came a week after the Associated Press reported that he had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the archdiocese before consistently ruling in favor of New Orleans’s Catholic church during its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. And Guidry’s ruling came hours after the Guardian had joined the AP in asking questions about a lawyer who was involved in making those donations while his firm defended archdiocesan-related ministries – such as assisted living homes – and the church itself as an employer in medical malpractice lawsuits.
“I do not believe [recusal] is mandated, and no party has filed a motion to [recuse] me,” Guidry’s order read. “However, balancing my duty to decide the case with my duty to consider self-recusal if appropriate, I have decided to recuse myself from this matter in order to avoid any possible appearance of personal bias or prejudice.”
Guidry’s order on Friday marked a stark reversal of course from just a week earlier, when he told attorneys involved in the bankruptcy case that a federal judiciary committee on codes of conduct had approved his continuing to handle appeals related to the case despite his giving nearly $50,000 to New Orleans-area Catholic charities from leftover contributions he received after serving 10 years in the elected position of Louisiana state supreme court justice.
It also seems likely to throw a bankruptcy case which has been ongoing since 1 May 2020 into disarray because of a federal legal precedent subjecting every ruling in a matter by a recused judge to be potentially reviewed and nullified.
Bankruptcy court records show that the campaign finance committee chairperson who greenlighted Guidry’s donations to the New Orleans archdiocese which serves a half-million Catholics – a prominent local attorney named John Litchfield – had been paid at least $80,000 directly from the local church. Litchfield told the Guardian late Friday morning that an associate at his firm had landed his office work defending some archdiocesan affiliates – mainly nursing homes or other senior living centers – from medical malpractice claims.
But Litchfield insisted his firm had steered well clear of the most contentious claims at the center of the bankruptcy: those of many people who claimed to have been molested as children by Catholic priests and deacons. And he argued that Guidry could retain the impartiality required of federal judges despite his support of the archdiocese and Litchfield’s business with the church.
“If Greg didn’t think he’d be fair, he’d recuse himself,” said Litchfield, who acknowledged on Friday in his interview with the Guardian that the AP had also just contacted him about his relationship with Guidry. “I know Greg Guidry. I know him well. And he’s as straight as they come.”
Late Friday morning, University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said he believed Guidry should recuse himself when Litchfield’s relationship to Guidry was described to him, citing a law requiring federal judges to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“It does sound to me like there are enough connections between the judge and the church and the counsel … to at least ask that question” about whether Guidry should recuse himself, Tobias said. “That’s a legitimate question to ask.”
Meanwhile, legal ethics professor Kathleen Clark told the AP: “The public shouldn’t have to rely on a judge’s personal certainty about his own rectitude.” She added that Guidry’s initial resistance to recusal was “misguided and ethically blind”.
Most of the gifts to the church by Guidry which the AP first reported last week – $36,000 – came in the months after the archdiocese asked New Orleans’s federal bankruptcy court for protection from creditors while it reorganized its financial books as it was faced with a wave of sexual abuse lawsuits as well as activity restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Newsletters issued by the archdiocese’s charitable arm even recognized Guidry and his wife among its donors for separate, private and unspecified contributions in 2017.
Once assigned to handle appeals in the bankruptcy case, Guidry denied a request to unseal some secret church documents outlining how archdiocesan officials handled clerics suspected of sexually abusing children, including more than 80 priests and deacons who the local church itself acknowledges are strongly suspected of preying on minors.
Guidry recently upheld a financially ruinous $400,000 fine against local lawyer Richard Trahant, who represents clergy abuse victims and was accused of violating a confidentiality order when he warned a local principal that his school was employing a priest who admitted to previously sexually molesting a teenage girl. He also upheld the expulsions of four of Trahant’s clients from a committee of clerical sexual abuse survivors who are involved in the bankruptcy after word of his warning to the local school principal – who, coincidentally, is Trahant’s cousin – made the news.
Furthermore, in addition to the opinion from the judiciary committee which Guidry cited when he initially indicated he would not recuse himself, the judge said in writing that he would stay on the case after seeking informal advice from federal appellate court judge Jennifer Walker Elrod about what to do. Elrod, meanwhile, is scheduled next week to hear an appeal from one of the expelled committee members who was represented by Trahant.
Guidry at one point provided pro bono services and served as a board member for the New Orleans archdiocese’s charitable arm, which was involved in at least one multimillion-dollar settlement to victims beaten and sexually abused at two local Catholic orphanages. Two of Trahant’s clients who were ousted from the committee at the center of the appeal which Elrod is scheduled to hear were abused at one of those archdiocesan orphanages in Marrero, a suburban area of New Orleans.
Guidry joins several of his colleagues in New Orleans’s federal judiciary who have recused themselves from the bankruptcy or related litigation, illustrating the multitude of links shared by the region’s legal establishment and the local archdiocese.
One of those judges previously worked as the archdiocese’s general counsel and is married to a former US senator, David Vitter. A second has served on a nonprofit which supports numerous archdiocesan ministries, and another has acknowledged a role in behind-the-scenes media relations campaigns that executives of the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints team helped the archdiocese mount after prominent media reporting on church sexual abuse cases in 2018 and 2019.
The Guardian asked Guidry, through a US federal courts spokesperson, whether he had told the judiciary committee about either his role with the orphanages or his relationship with Litchfield. The spokesperson replied with Guidry’s motion to recuse himself.
Guidry’s recusal comes as federal judges’ relationships with parties who have business before their courts are being examined even at the highest levels.
ProPublica recently reported the close friendship between Clarence Thomas, the senior conservative on the US supreme court, and the Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.
Without declaring them, Thomas received from Crow extensive gifts including luxury travel and resort stays. Crow also bought a home in which Thomas’s mother lives and donated money to groups connected to Ginni Thomas, the justice’s far-right activist wife.
Thomas and Crow have denied wrongdoing.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that another conservative supreme court justice, Neil Gorsuch, pocketed up to $500,000 from a property sale shortly after joining the court but did not disclose that the buyer was the chief executive of a law firm with business before the court.
Gorsuch has not commented while the executive at the law firm has denied wrongdoing.
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