Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 6

H. Lee Sarokin

1992—Ruling on a pre-trial discovery motion in a personal injury action against cigarette manufacturers (Haines v. Liggett Group), New Jersey federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin declares that “the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation” and charges that its members “knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits and … believe that illness and death of consumers is an appropriate cost of their own prosperity!” (Exclamation point in original.) Relying on his “own familiarity with the evidence” adduced in a different case, Sarokin rules that the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applies and orders the requested documents produced. Undermining defendants’ opportunity to appeal his ruling, he quotes extensively from the very documents as to which privilege had been asserted.

A unanimous Third Circuit panel later grants an extraordinary writ vacating Sarokin’s discovery order and also removing Sarokin from the case. The Third Circuit lambastes Sarokin for a “judicial usurpation of power,” for violating “fundamental concepts of due process,” for divulging the contents of assertedly privileged documents before avenues of appeal had been exhausted, and for destroying any appearance of impartiality. Sarokin, in reply, brazenly alleges that the Third Circuit panel failed to exercise independent legal judgment and instead did the bidding of a “powerful litigant.”

In the face of these and other judicial misdeeds, President Clinton will appoint Sarokin to the Third Circuit in 1994. The ABA gives Sarokin its highest “well qualified” rating. Senate Democrats hail Sarokin as an ideal judge. Senator Leahy, for example, calls him “a judge of proven competence, temperament, and fairness” and “an excellent choice.”

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