A Federal Appeals court has taken the unusual step of taking four cases away from U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones of Reno, and warning him about his conduct in a fifth, largely for his animosity toward out-of-state lawyers.
This sort of slap at a federal judge in the nine-state 9th Circuit does not appear to have happened since 2008 when the appeals court had, by that point, taken 15 cases away from Los Angeles federal Judge Manuel Real over a period of several years.
Jones’ latest run-in with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came earlier this month, when it removed a case that the panel said he had no business acting on, because it had settled. But in a non-precedential order, the panel said Jones “excoriated and mocked counsel and offered lengthy criticisms of the settlement agreement despite counsel’s repeated statements that the parties were not seeking the court’s approval.”
In addition, “Jones noted his own laughter on the record, repeatedly lobbed accusations of malpractice; described counsel’s comments as ‘mealy-mouthed’ and suggested that counsel return to law school,” the panel cited in a footnote. (Black Rock City v. Pershing County Board of Commissioners, 14-15221)
Jones seems to have particular trouble with the government’s non-local lawyers. He may have really stepped in it back on June 29, 2015. The U.S. moved to end his practice of rejecting out-of-state government lawyers. The government accused Jones’ of a policy of improperly refusing to admit out-of-state government attorneys to appear in his court. The Justice Department asked the 9th Circuit for a order that would make Jones stop.
The 9th Circuit panel issued a warning to Jones with instructions on how he should act, but in a separate concurring opinion, Judge Clifford Wallace suggested, “The proper and more effective,” place to go is the Judicial Council of the Circuit, which hands out discipline to misbehaving judges. (Interestingly, Jones served as Wallace’s own law clerk from 1976-83)
The government argued Jones had expressed his policy of denying out-of-state lawyers the ability to argue tax, environmental and water cases, relegating them instead to the local U.S. attorney. He had denied motions to appear in a tax case made by a federal lawyer from Massachusetts; an Indian tribal water rights case to federal lawyers from Idaho and Colorado and denied admission to other lawyers from Washington, D.C.
Even after he was reversed for denying admission to government lawyers he resumed the practice, according to the 9th Circuit. The panel instructed Jones that he must provide a valid reason for denying an attorney who represents the U.S. admission to practice in his court.
The appeals court said it was not necessary at this point to issue the formal order the government wanted. “We are confident that the district court will conform its decisions to the principles we announce here,” wrote Judge Milan Smith. (In re U.S. v. U.S. District Court, 791 F.3d 945)
La Raza, NAACP
But a few months later, in a September 2015 decision, Jones was removed from a case brought by three civil rights groups claiming voter rights violations by the state under a requirement that voter registrations be distributed at Dept. of Motor Vehicle offices and to people seeking public assistance.
In 2012, the plaintiffs’ eight out-of-state lawyers from the NAACP and National Council of La Raza, applied for a routine permission (known as pro hac vice applications) to appear in the Nevada federal court. Although the state did not object, Jones said he would deny all but two applications and said he was “not obligated to admit pro hac vice a lot of New York lawyers who in essence are representing their own interests, their own law firms’ interests, rather than even the plaintiff they represent.” Although the lawyers were working without fee (pro bono), Jones would not admit them or allow them to work on case briefs.
He later dismissed the case based on a motion that had been previously withdrawn by the state. He said the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue the state. The appeals court reinstated the case and removed Jones. (National Council of La Raza v. Cegavske 13-15077)
Nevada Militia Ranchers
Then in January 2016, Jones ran afoul of the appeals court in the case of self-styled militia ranchers who wanted to graze cattle on public land for free. Jones upheld the ranchers’ claims and was reversed by the appeals court. He was removed from the case for his “feelings against out-of-state attorneys” that were called “both well-established and inappropriately strong.”
Jones had recognized the ranchers’ water rights claims as giving them rights to graze cattle and held two federal agents in contempt of court for pursuing trespass claims.
On the first day of a 21-day trial, Judge Jones stated, “’The Bureau of Land Management, you come in with the standard arrogant, arbitrary, capricious attitude that I recognize in many of these cases. It’s my experience that the Forest Service and the BLM is very arbitrary and capricious.”’
“A dispassionate observer would conclude that the district judge harbored animus toward the federal agencies,” the panel concluded. (U.S. v. Estate of Hage, 13-16974)
On the same day on June 29, 2015, that one panel of the circuit had said it was confident Jones would adhere to its guidance to admit out-of-state government lawyers to his court, a different three-judge panel took another case away from him.
In that case, Jones was dinged for improperly injecting himself into criminal plea negotiations. He told the government and defense he would neither “accept the plea nor the plea agreement” in the 2011 case of a woman charged with 50 counts of embezzlement, money laundering, wire fraud and mail fraud.
Marcilin Benvin had agreed to enter an unconditional guilty plea to one count of embezzlement from an employee benefit plan and pay restitution of $260,000 and be subject to the relevant sentencing guideline term. She also faced a separate $3 million judgment in bankruptcy court.
Jones repeatedly said he wanted both sides to stipulate to $3 million in restitution. The appeals court said the trial court “inappropriately involved itself in negotiations when it imposed conditions on its approval.” The panel concluded, “The appearance of justice will best be served by reassignment to a different judge.” (In re Benvin, 14-72181)
Jones was appointed to the federal court in Reno in 2003 by President George Bush. He previously served as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge in Nevada. From 1989 to 1995 served as a member of the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct.