Regina Rodriguez investiture program

The program for the investiture of U.S. District Court Judge Regina M. Rodriguez, which took place on Aug. 13, 2021 at the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in Denver.

An overflow crowd witnessed Colorado's newest federal judge be sworn in on Friday, August 13, in a formal ceremony known as an investiture. In attendance at the Alfred J. Arraj Courthouse in downtown Denver were a U.S. senator, the Biden administration's ambassador to Mexico and justices of the state Supreme Court.

Afterward, there was a reception for U.S. District Court Judge Regina M. Rodriguez at the Denver Botanic Gardens featuring many of those same guests. Paying for the event were two of Rodriguez's recent past employers: the high-powered, international law firms of WilmerHale and Faegre Drinker.

Although guidance from the federal court system expressly allows for corporate sponsorship of investiture receptions, multiple people told Colorado Politics they were surprised to learn such an arrangement was possible, and that the practice of law firms wining and dining judges could, on the surface, appear problematic.

"The federal government does not pay for them. That means that the judge confirmed or others must pay" for investiture receptions, said Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law. "Most federal judges who I know pay for it themselves, which seems to be the better practice. The appearance of firms whose members will appear before the judges confirmed is not a particularly good look."

Rodriguez was a lawyer and then partner for Faegre Drinker between 2005 and 2016, and a partner at WilmerHale from 2019 until her confirmation in June. Both firms did not respond to questions from Colorado Politics about the cost of the reception.

Rodriguez told the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary that she would recuse herself in cases on which WilmerHale had previously performed work, or where her impartiality could reasonably be questioned. No one interviewed suggested that Rodriguez would be influenced by the reception thrown in her honor.

But a database search turned up 36 cases filed in the U.S. District Court for Colorado since January 2019 involving WilmerHale or Faegre Drinker attorneys, meaning those firms still have business before the federal court.

Jason R. Dunn, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado during the Trump administration, attended Rodriguez's investiture at the courthouse, but did not attend the botanic gardens reception. He recalled spending his personal money — approximately $1,000 — for his own investiture reception. It went toward food and drinks, given that the reception took place in the Byron R. White Courthouse, which houses the federal court of appeals.

"It never even occurred to me, I assumed I had to pay myself," he said, adding he still would have used his own money even had he known another entity could sponsor the reception. "People in these positions always need to be careful about public perception."

A 2009 advisory opinion for federal judges explained that a "commonly extended" benefit to new judges is the offer by a private entity or individual to sponsor a reception in connection with their investiture.

"If the donor or sponsor is a former law firm, corporate employer, business client, or group of colleagues," reads advisory opinion No. 98, "the Gift Regulations recognize that the offer may be accepted as a gift from a friend on a special occasion, assuming the gift is fairly commensurate with the occasion and the relationship."

The opinion mentions that recusal from cases involving the donors is also prudent. The policy does not, however, address the responsibility of other judges who attend such receptions. Gift regulations do not include "modest items, such as food and refreshments, offered as a matter of social hospitality."

In contrast to those who see an image problem, David Luban, a professor who writes about legal ethics at the Georgetown University Law Center, takes the opposite view. A reception that a judge's former employer pays for is, in his opinion, harmless.

"A reasonable mind would not conclude that a federal judge can be swayed by a free glass of wine and a crab dip appetizer, served in a public place with a hundred people milling around," Luban said.

"I think it is common and not concerning," added Nancy Gertner, a retired federal district judge in Massachusetts. "I agree that the existing recusal procedures should address it."

Even if the practice of law firms paying for judges' receptions is common, it is not universal.

One federal judge, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the subject candidly, said they also paid for their reception themselves, and acknowledged the appearance of impropriety that corporate sponsorships may give rise to.

The clerk for the U.S. District Court of Utah said receptions for new judges there are funded almost entirely though a "bench-bar fund," generated from the yearly license fees of attorneys who practice in federal court. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, based in Orlando, also allows its $15 admission fee on attorneys to be used for receptions, per its policy.

In Colorado, the fee goes toward reimbursing lawyers for out-of-pocket costs when representing litigants pro bono.

Rodriguez did not respond to an email sent to her chambers, and the botanic gardens said it would not reveal the cost of a private event. The district court did not immediately disclose any financial support other judges appointed in Colorado within the past decade may have received for their receptions.

Stan Garnett, the former district attorney for Boulder County, said that he has pitched in on multiple occasions for the investiture receptions of his friends who have been appointed as state judges — but has been mindful about the appearance of currying favor.

"Lawyers are pretty collegial and we like to celebrate each other's success," he said. 

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