This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 4

1992—Recognizing that “only exceptional circumstances amounting to a judicial usurpation of power will justify the invocation of [the] extraordinary remedy” of a writ of mandamus, the Third Circuit finds (in Haines v. Liggett) that New Jersey federal district judge (and This Day all-star) H. Lee Sarokin has created such exceptional circumstances.  Ruling on a pre-trial discovery motion in a personal injury action against cigarette manufacturers, Sarokin had declared that “the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation” and had charged 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 had ruled that the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applies and ordered the requested documents produced.  Undermining defendants’ opportunity to appeal his ruling, he had quoted extensively from the very documents as to which privilege had been asserted.

The Third Circuit, in an opinion by LBJ appointee Ruggero Aldisert, not only vacates Sarokin’s discovery order but also takes the extraordinary step of removing Sarokin from the case.  The Third Circuit lambastes Sarokin for violating “fundamental concepts of due process,” for divulging the contents of assertedly privileged documents before avenues of appeal had been exhausted (“We should not again encounter a casualty of this sort”), and for destroying any appearance of impartiality. 

When President Clinton nominates Sarokin to the Third Circuit in 1994, Senator Patrick Leahy displays his usual denial of reality as he lauds Sarokin as “a judge of proven competence, temperament, and fairness” and “an excellent choice.”

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