The Ottumwa Courier

Court Calls

June 19, 2012

The impartiality of the judge

Court Calls

OTTUMWA — I have now had the privilege of serving as an Iowa district court judge for approximately nine months. Having practiced law for 28 years in a private law firm before becoming a judge vests me with the responsibility to deal with the long-standing relationships I have with my former partners and law firm, as well as the clients I have served.  

When one goes to work every day for years with the same small group of people, you develop deep friendships. Leaving the practice of law does not mean I can no longer be friends with those people — lawyers, secretaries and others. But, a judge must maintain independence and impartiality, so these, like all my other family and community relationships, now require special caution.

When I transitioned to the bench, I also had to leave many active cases and clients. Because it would be an obvious conflict for me to service those cases and clients as a judge, I cannot be involved with those files and with those people in court work. As a judge, I must avoid even the appearance of impropriety, conflict, favor or disfavor.  

As a new judge I am ethically bound to step aside from legal matters involving my former partners and law firm for one year from the date I took my judicial office. After that period passes, I must still be vigilant to assure that it is appropriate for me to adjudicate cases involving former colleagues. The bottom line is that judges must avoid situations that could be reasonably seen as compromising trust and confidence in the fair and impartial work of the courts. Beyond the litigants’ specific interests, it is crucial that the larger public observes its court system as one of integrity, where judges are independent of bias and prejudice and decide cases on the merits.

The need to recuse myself based upon my pre-bench lawyer work can cause logistical problems. Sometimes I am assigned to a court-service day when my former firm is on the docket. I routinely screen for such conflicts, but even with best efforts, my former partners have already suffered an occasional inconvenience in showing up for court just to hear me say, “Sorry ... I can’t hear this!” Fortunately, they, as officers of the court (as all lawyers are), and as friends, are very understanding.

Judge Gookin became a judge in the fall of 2011. He travels the circuit of the 10 counties in Judicial District 8A, which includes his home county, Jefferson. Occasionally, he is also assigned for work in District 8B. He may be reached at

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