Two Justice Department attorneys said yesterday they were unaware of any evidence that the department sought to have U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George F. Bason removed from the bench as retaliation for his decisions in an ongoing lawsuit.
Bason has served four years as the federal bankruptcy judge for the District, and questions have been raised as to whether he was not appointed to a new term because of his decisions in the case, which pits Justice against Inslaw Inc., a Washington software company currently operating under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.
Bason is scheduled to be replaced on Feb. 8 by S. Martin Teel Jr., a Justice Department lawyer who has been involved in arguing the Inslaw case.
The Justice Department earlier this week asked Bason to recuse himself from the case after he wrote a letter to Patricia M. Wald, chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals here, saying that "a number of lawyers and others" had suggested to Bason that "somehow the Justice Department has undertaken to influence the judicial selection process as a means of retaliation against me."
But Bason yesterday refused to recuse himself from the case.
During a tense hearing in federal bankruptcy court in the District, Bason asked the Justice Department lawyers whether they knew of any effort in the department to interfere with his proposed reappointment. Allen Lear, a department attorney, responded that he "knows of no such attempt," as did Dean Cooper, another department lawyer.
The Justice Department has argued that Bason must step down on the grounds that he appears to be biased against the department. It cited Bason's letter to Wald as well as comments he made to reporters last week about the reappointment process.
But Bason said yesterday that the department had misrepresented his views. In ruling, Bason said that the Justice Department appeared to be trying to delay the case, called the Justice request that he step down a case of "obvious judge shopping," and said he would refer the matter to the U.S. District Court for possible sanctions against the department.
Lear said after the hearing that the department is planning to appeal Bason's decision.
The court hearing yesterday was the latest development in the strange saga of Inslaw, which developed a computer software program to track cases for U.S. Attorney's offices but subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and claimed it was the victim of a vendetta by Justice officials.
Bason has ruled that the department used "trickery, fraud and deceit" to force Inslaw out of business, and has scheduled a trial to begin Wednesday on whether the department must pay punitive damages to Inslaw, which is seeking $7.4 million.
Lear told Bason that the language in the judge's letter to Wald suggested that Bason "believes that there is something to these allegations" about retaliation by the Justice Department, and that as a result, a reasonable person thus "might fairly question the court's partiality" in the Inslaw case.
Bason, who interjected comments at several points in Lear's presentation, angrily disagreed with the department's interpretation, saying that Lear had "distorted the meaning of these paragraphs beyond all recognition." The judge said he was only passing on to Wald what he had been told, not what he believed.