NAME: Joseph E. Stevens Jr.
COURTHOUSE: Kansas City
APPOINTED: In 1981 by President Reagan
PROBLEM CASES: 2
For many years, Judge Stevens was a powerful figure at Truman Medical Center, where he sat on the board of governors.
But during that time he also had a hand in the hospital's affairs while sitting on the bench.
That's where, in May 1995, Stevens threw out a legal claim against Truman. Eleven months later, he threw out another.
He ultimately dismissed both lawsuits "with prejudice," meaning the plaintiffs can never refile them.
Yet federal law is clear: Judges must withdraw from any lawsuit in which they know they are a "director, adviser or other active participant in the affairs of a party."
Stevens did not dispute that he should not have handled cases against Truman. In fact, he said he was surprised to learn that he had presided over the lawsuits. Each was filed by an inmate at the Jackson County Jail, alleging he received substandard medical care.
"If I had known Truman was on the pleading," Stevens said, "I would not have signed the orders."
Each order emanating from Stevens' chambers bears his signature. But in many routine lawsuits, he said, law clerks draft orders for him to review and sign.
If they failed to point out Truman was a defendant, he argued, the conflict was due to "administrative error" by the clerks -- not to his own lapse.
Both of the court orders that dismissed the claims against Truman referred to the medical center four times by name. One of those orders mentions Truman in both its first and last sentence. Directly below the last sentence, the judge signed his name.
Yet Stevens said that does not mean he realized Truman was a defendant. "I just barely see them," he explained of the
orders, which did not list Truman in the headings.
Stevens said The Star's discovery might lead him to resign from Truman -- and nine days later he did.
At Truman, Stevens said, he and his fellow governors acted as advisers to the hospital's board of directors.
Governors attend but have no vote at the hospital's monthly business meetings. That power is reserved for directors, a position Stevens held for nine years before becoming a governor.
But governors also serve on policy committees with the directors. Governors
may vote at committee meetings, officials said, and their duties can include guiding litigation.
The hospital listed Stevens in its corporate filings as part of the medical center's controlling board. And it listed Stevens on its federal tax return as among its "directors, trustees and key employees."
Still, Stevens said, determining whether his actions broke ethics laws remains "a hard question."
"There isn't any black and white," he said.
But the judge agreed that his actions may have created the appearance of impropriety.
"I now think it would have been better," he said, "to have recused."