On Thursday, March 21, 2024, the Seventh Circuit Judicial Council issued a ruling regarding a judicial misconduct complaint filed against three federal judges in Illinois. The complaint was submitted in January by America First Legal, a conservative legal organization, after the judges publicly adopted policies that promoted discrimination based on race and gender.

Specifically, Judges Nancy J. Rosenstengel, Staci M. Yandle, and David W. Dugan had each made statements indicating they would automatically grant requests for oral arguments on motions if the party informed the court that a “newer, female or minority attorney” would be arguing the case. In response to criticism of these plainly unethical policies, Chief Judge Diane S. Sykes ruled on the misconduct complaint on behalf of the Seventh Circuit Judicial Council.

The ruling represented a partial victory for the complainants. Judges Rosenstengel and Yandle agreed to rescind the problematic policies. Additionally, Judge Dugan disclosed that he had privately withdrawn his similar policy statement in October 2022. However, the judicial conduct panel declined to outright condemn the judges’ original discriminatory orders.

While acknowledging the judges took steps to remedy issues raised, the ruling avoided directly criticizing the impropriety of their initial actions. It also seemingly accepted uncritically the judges’ new claims that they had never actually granted or denied arguments explicitly due to attorney attributes like sex, despite the clear implication of their prior public statements.

America First Legal remained dissatisfied with the gentle treatment provided to the judges in the ruling. In particular, representatives found it implausible that Judges Rosenstengel and Yandle would not follow through on their commitments to preferential treatment as announced, or that their goals were purely centered on expanding opportunities rather than promoting certain demographic groups.

The ruling represents an ongoing debate about balancing judiciary collegiality with fully holding members accountable for potential ethical lapses. Though three judges altered problematic policies, some view the judicial council’s ruling as failing to sufficiently reprimand clearly discriminatory actions. Regardless, the complaint triggered reforms and shed light on questionable preferential policies in an Illinois federal court.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.