Financial and personal conflicts of interest affecting four Supreme Court justices left the court without a quorum last week and unable to decide whether to hear an appeal brought by more than 50 companies that did business in apartheid-era South Africa. As a result, the Supreme Court announced on Monday that a lower court's judgment allowing the high-profile lawsuit against the companies to move forward was automatically affirmed, reports the New York Times.
A quorum of six of the nine justices is necessary for the court to conduct business. While the recusal of four justices is unusual, so was the case that provoked it, a consolidation of 10 lawsuits filed in the name of everyone who lived in South Africa from 1948 to 1994 and who was injured by the official system of racial separation. The dozens of corporate defendants represented a who's who of American business. The outcome calls attention to the occasionally uncomfortable consequences of the justices' ownership of stock in individual companies. Federal law makes it mandatory for judges to remove themselves from cases if they own even a single share of stock in a company that is a party in a case. Judges, unlike some executive branch officials, are not required to divest themselves of their stock holdings.