WASHINGTON (AP) -- The chief judge of a federal appeals court announced Friday that he's stepping down from his post and apologized for sending an inappropriate email to an attorney who had argued cases before him.
Judge Randall Rader of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said in a letter to colleagues that he was "inexcusably careless" for sending the email praising the lawyer's skills and urging him to share it with others.
Rader said he will continue to serve as a judge on the appeals court, which specializes in hearing patent cases. He will be succeeded as chief by Judge Sharon Prost effective May 30.
"I have come to realize that I have engaged in conduct that crossed lines established for the purpose of maintaining a judicial process whose integrity must remain beyond question," Rader wrote in the letter posted on the court's website. The letter is addressed to the court's 17 other judges.
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 and encouraged him to show the message to others. While Rader acknowledged sending the email, he did not name the recipient.
Reines did not respond to a request for comment.
Such messages would not be considered appropriate under ethical rules, said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University and an expert on legal ethics.
"It implies that the lawyer has some particular influence with the judge," Gillers said.
Rader said he would never compromise his impartiality as a judge but realizes that the email "may have led to the perception that the attorney in question was in a position to influence me in my performance of judicial duties."
Rader, appointed to the Federal Circuit by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, has served as the court's chief judge since June 1, 2010. The term is seven years, but judges often step down earlier. 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 because 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 reached 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.
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