Back in October 2023, a federal lawsuit was filed against David Jones, the chief bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of Texas. In the complaint, the lawsuit alleged that Jones and Elizabeth Freeman, his former law clerk and Houston bankruptcy attorney, had an undisclosed romantic relationship.[1] The relationship spanned years, with both sharing a house since 2017.[2] Freeman was a partner at the law firm, Jackson Walker, until December 2022.[3] Currently, she has a solo practice in Houston, “The Law Office of Liz Freeman, PLLC.”[4]

The lawsuit was filed pro se by Michael Van Deelen who alleged that Jones retaliated against him for disclosing the judge’s inappropriate relationship in a previous legal filing.[5] Van Deelen had filed a shareholder suit in a previous bankruptcy matter before Judge Jones.[6] The debtor in that case was represented by the law firm Jackson Walker.[7] One of the attorneys assigned to the case was Freeman.[8] Van Deelen had received an anonymous letter in March 2021 disclosing the relationship.[9] Specifically, the letter described a “scheme in which corporate bankruptcy filers would hire Jackson Walker to represent them and then get favorable treatment from Defendant Jones because of his amorous relationship with Freeman.”[10] Deelen in the prior case had filed a motion for recusal, attaching the letter as an exhibit.[11] However, the motion was denied.[12] 

Returning to October 2023, Corizon, a private prison health provider, had pulled what is known as the “Texas Two-Step.”[13] The “Texas Two-Step” is a process where a business creates a new legal entity, transferring most of its liabilities to the new entity, while only transferring a minority of its assets.[14] Then, the new entity files for bankruptcy.[15] In our case, Corizon put its assets into YesCare and its debts into Tehum, with Tehum subsequently filing for bankruptcy in the Southern District of Texas.[16] Freeman represented YesCare in the bankruptcy case, and Jones presided over the settlement talks.[17] During the case, the parties reached a proposed deal to settle at least 350 malpractice suits against Corizon and millions in unpaid invoices.[18] However, the deal was subsequently called into question once the relationship was made public news.[19] 

Shortly after, the Fifth Circuit launched an ethics inquiry, with the chief judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Priscilla Richman, filing a misconduct complaint.[20] In the complaint, Richman found probable cause to believe Jones violated the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges.[21] Specifically, Jones failed to recuse himself from cases involving Jackson Walker and failed to disclose his relationship with Freeman.[22] The Code of Conduct requires judges to recuse themselves from a “proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”[23] Additionally, amendments to the Code of Conduct also clarify that “recusal considerations applicable to a judge’s spouse should also be considered with respect to a person other than a spouse with whom the judge maintains both a household and an intimate relationship.”[24] Furthermore, in the complaint, Jones approved attorneys’ fee applications for Jackson Walker, where Freeman performed “substantial” services.[25] The magnitude of these fee applications is underscored by the U.S. Trustee seeking the return of over $13 million in at least 26 cases where Jackson Walker was involved.[26] Following this scathing complaint, Jones submitted his resignation.[27]

Following his resignation, the Fifth Circuit halted the federal judicial ethics probe into Jones.[28] According to Richman, further action was “unnecessary.”[29] The probe was deemed “unnecessary” since only sitting judges are subject to remedial action under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980.[30] While the Fifth Circuit could have continued the inquiry to assess “potential institutional issues,”[31] Jones could no longer be personally disciplined. 

More must be done to hold the judiciary accountable. Admittedly, Judge Jones did resign, and this scandal will be a blemish on his career. However, Jones will still be able to practice as an attorney. Since the ethics inquiry was not completed, there were no explicit findings that could be used in future lawsuits or hearings before any State Bar Association. Jones gets to walk away with his law license intact. Similar scandals within the federal judiciary show a need to revise the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 to allow for ethics inquiries to continue beyond the resignation of a judge. In 2017, Judge Alex Kozinski resigned from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after fifteen female law clerks and staffers accused him of sexual harassment.[32] Kozinski was able to leave with a full pension and his law license.[33] Further, only two years later, Kozinski was arguing before the Ninth Circuit in a copyright case.[34] 

With public confidence in the judiciary at an all-time low,[35] judges should be held fully accountable for their unethical actions. Judges are required to maintain “the highest standards of judicial and personal conduct” under the model code of judicial conduct.[36] Yet this solution, which calls for the continuance of ethics inquiries beyond resignation, only seeks to hold judges to the same standards as ordinary citizens when they commit unethical conduct. Failing to hold the judiciary accountable will further undermine public trust, which is integral to the survival and execution of the judicial system.[37] Now is the time to lay down the gavel and restore public confidence in the judiciary by reforming the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980. 


[1] Dakin Campbell & Nicole Einbinder, Lawsuit Alleges Undisclosed Relationship Involving Federal Judge that Could Cloud Corizon Bankruptcy Deal, Bus. Insider (Oct. 6, 2023, 6:21 PM), [].

[2] Id.

[3] Dietrich Knauth & Nate Raymond, Top US Bankruptcy Judge Resigns Amid Ethics Inquiry, Reuters (Oct. 16, 2023, 3:58 AM), [].

[4] The L. Off. Liz Freeman, (last visited Apr. 11, 2024) [].

[5] Campbell & Einbinder, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Campbell & Einbinder, supra note 1.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Jason Fernando, Texas Two-Step Bankruptcy: Meaning, Criticism, Example, Investopedia (Jan. 4, 2023), [].

[15] Id.

[16] Campbell & Einbinder, supra note 1.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Nate Raymond, Ethics Probe into Texas Bankruptcy Judge Ends Following Resignation, Reuters (Nov. 16, 2023, 11:09 AM), [].

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Dietrich Knauth, US Bankruptcy Judge Should Have Disclosed Personal Relationship – Experts, Reuters (Oct. 10, 2023, 5:04 PM), [].

[24] Id.

[25] Raymond, supra note 20.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] For example, the Tenth Circuit relied on this authority to investigate a former New Mexico magistrate judge, even after her term expired. Raymond, supra note 20.

[32] Patricia Barnes, He’s Back. After Resigning, Federal Judge Accused of Sexual Harassment Returns as a Practitioner, Forbes (Dec. 6, 2019, 11:23 PM), [].

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] A Gallup Poll on public confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court showed only 25% of Americans reported “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in the Court. David F. Levi et al., Losing Faith: Why Public Trust in the Judiciary Matters, 106 Judicature 71, 71 (2022); “A National Judicial College survey of alumni confirmed that judges likewise perceive a decrease in public confidence, with 63 percent of respondents indicating that public esteem of judges is on the decline.” Carol Funk, Public Confidence and the Courts: Pillars of the Rule of Law, A.B.A. (Feb. 17, 2023), [].

[36] Cynthia Gray, Ethical Standards for Judges 1 (2009).

[37] “[P]ublic trust is essential, not incidental, to our function.” John G. Roberts, Jr., C.J., 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary 3 (2021).

Saturday, April 13, 2024