By: Abigail Grieve
Last week CBS News reported that Angelina Jolie “scored a major victory . . . in her divorce with Brad Pitt when a California appeals court agreed with her that the private judge deciding who gets custody of their children should be disqualified.” The cited grounds for this disqualification were that the judge did not sufficiently disclose his business relationships with Brad Pitt’s attorneys, which “might cause an objective person, aware of all the facts, reasonably to entertain a doubt as to the judge’s ability to be impartial,” ruled the 2nd District Court of Appeals. As such, “[d]isqualification is required.” Should the Jolie/Pitt divorce have occurred before a judge in Texas with those business relationships, the same result would have occurred.
Texas includes a disqualification provision in its constitution: “No judge shall sit in any case wherein the judge may be interested, or where either of the parties may be connected with the judge, either by affinity or consanguinity, . . . or when the judge shall have been counsel in the case.” Under this provision as well as judicial canons of ethics, judges will typically self-disqualify if they believe that they may be biased in a particular case. However, when a judge does not self-disqualify (the position in which Angelina Jolie found herself), an attorney may file to have the judge removed from the case under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 18a and 18b, which govern the rules and procedure for disqualification and recusal.
Relevant to the Jolie/Pitt divorce, Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18b provides that a “judge must disqualify in any proceeding in which: . . . (2) the judge knows that, individually or as a fiduciary, the judge has an interest in the subject matter in controversy.” Further, Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18b provides that a judge must recuse themselves from any case proceeding in which:
(1) the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned;
(2) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party;
(3) the judge knows that the judge, individually or as a fiduciary, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;
(4) the judge has an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.
As such, it is clear that while California and Texas may have very different laws and policies in some areas, in the realm of judicial ethics, especially in family law cases where the well-being of children is at stake, our laws agree. Judges making decisions that will affect the parties’ lives need to remain unbiased and consider the case without thinking about their own interests.