Just days after U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa issued a key ruling in favor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in its bankruptcy, the church's creditors are seeking an emergency order to determine whether Randa has a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed.
Randa ruled last week that forcing the archdiocese to tap the $50 million-plus it holds in a trust for the perpetual care of cemeteries would substantially burden its free expression of religion under the First Amendment and a 1993 federal law aimed at protecting religious liberty.
In a highly unusual move late Friday, lawyers representing the archdiocese's creditors — primarily sex abuse victims — filed a motion asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley to compel the release of any records showing whether Randa and his wife, Melinda, have purchased any plots or crypts in one of the archdiocese's cemeteries, or whether they have any interest as heirs or beneficiaries of several relatives known to be buried in them.
Depending on what they find, the motion says, the lawyers say they may seek to vacate Randa's order and ask him to recuse himself from the case.
"Judge Randa's decision was so indefensible in so many ways that we suspected there was reason to investigate any involvement he might have with the cemeteries," said Marci Hamilton, a First Amendment scholar who is representing the creditors committee on the issue.
Timothy Nixon, an attorney for the cemetery trust and its sole trustee, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, called the motion a desperate tactic and an "attack on a federal judge."
"It's sad that the committee's lawyers now ... in the face of a single, adverse decision, take the extraordinary step of impugning the integrity of a respected federal judge," Nixon said.
Both sides called the motion highly unusual. If Randa is asked to recuse himself, Hamilton said it would be a first among the several Catholic Church bankruptcies around the country.
At issue, the creditors' lawyers say, is not Randa's religion — Kelley and at least one other judge in a Catholic church bankruptcy have noted that they are Catholic — but whether he has a vested interest in the cemetery litigation. As part of the bankruptcy, Listecki filed a claim on behalf of all individuals who own burial sites in the archdiocese's cemeteries or have an interest as an heir or beneficiary of others buried there. According to the motion filed Friday, the Randas have several relatives buried in the archdiocese's cemeteries including their parents.
The cemetery decision was a key victory for the archdiocese in that it eliminates one of the last major assets available for a settlement with sex abuse victims who filed claims in the bankruptcy. If it stands, the ruling could have far-reaching implications for other religious institutions considering bankruptcy.