The chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit announced Friday that he's stepping down from his post, a day after reports that he sent a complimentary email to an attorney who had argued cases before him.
Judge Randall Rader will continue to serve as a judge on the appeals court, which specializes in hearing patent cases, the court announced. He will be succeeded as chief by Judge Sharon Prost effective May 30.
Earlier this month, Rader recused himself from two cases in which the attorney, Edward Reines, had appeared before the court on behalf of computer giant Microsoft Corp. and medical device maker Medtronic Inc.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Rader had sent a "laudatory email" to Reines praising his skill as a lawyer. The email encouraged Reines to share the praise with others, the paper reported.
Such messages would not be considered appropriate under ethical rules, said Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University and an expert on legal ethics.
"It implies that the lawyer has some particular influence with the judge," Gillers said.
A spokesman for Rader at the Federal Circuit did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reines did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Rader, appointed to the Federal Circuit by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, has served as chief of the 18-judge appeals court since June 1, 2010. The term is for seven years, but judges often step down earlier for a variety of reasons. Rader turned 65 this year, making him eligible for retirement.
Prost, appointed to the court by President George W. Bush in 2001, is next in line for the chief judge post becuase she has the longest tenure on the court of any judge under age 65.
There is not likely to be any real penalty against Rader for the apparent conflict of interest. Federal judges are appointed for life and may be impeached, but that has rarely occurred. Gillers suggested there could be a disciplinary proceeding by the judicial council of the Federal Circuit, but any penalty would likely be a warning not to do it again.
Earlier this month, Rader recused himself from two cases involving Reines in which he had already reach decisions as part of a three-judge panel. His recusal had no apparent effect on the outcome of the cases.
In one case, the court reissued an opinion with a different judge that reached the same conclusion. In the second case, the court issued a new order that similarly halted a lower court injunction barring Medtronic from selling a new aortic heart valve.
The court did not reveal the reason for Rader's recusal in either case. Daniel O'Toole, circuit executive and the clerk of the appeals court, said there was no requirement to disclose the reasons, adding Rader did not offer any.