In New York City, partners at top corporate law firms are maxing out on donations to congressmen that hold sway over federal court appointments and judiciary hearings.

New York lawyers are the top contributors to Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, doling out just under $128,000 for the House Judiciary Committee member’s re-election campaign in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the most generous among them were lawyers from Paul Weiss, his first employer after graduating from New York University School of Law in the late 90’s.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also nurtures close ties to powerful law firms in New York. The treasurer of his leadership PAC, David Barrett, is a partner at Bois, Schiller & Flexner, specializing in securities litigation – and has defended many top financial firms in fraud cases after the financial crisis. Barrett is also a member of Schumer’s Judiciary Screening Panel, making recommendations for judicial appointments in New York’s federal court system.

Lawyers from Paul Weiss have been supportive as well. Altogether, its partners specializing in securities litigation, corporate mergers, and intellectual property rights are Schumer’s top donors.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Schumer is the gatekeeper for all federal court appointments in New York. Blue slips, a century old tradition in the senate, are a tool senators use frequently to stonewall judicial appointments. After a president nominates a judge for federal court, the Judiciary Committee issues a “blue slip” to the court’s home-state senators, granting them veto power over any nominee.
Under the Obama administration, red state senators have used blue slips to block the president’s nominees from their courts. But both sides of the aisle have employed them to control the courts. In 2003, while trying to block the nomination of conservative Miguel Estrada to a D.C. circuit court, Chuck Schumer defended the practice, saying “We have always had a tradition of blue slips where, if a senator from a home state objected certainly to a district court judge, that judge would not go forward.”

Experts say the guidelines for political contributions are modest at best. “They’re pretty feeble,” according to Rutgers School of Law professor John Leubsdorf. Legal ethics generally govern a lawyer’s responsibilities to their clients, but there are few guidelines for how they should comport themselves outside of that relationship. Rule 7.6 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules for Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from accepting an appointment from a politician or judge to whom they’ve donated to – so firms can’t lobby for lucrative work with the government. However, the American Bar Association is not a lawmaking body, and it’s rules are largely advisory unless adopted by state legislatures.

While corporate lawyers are not governed by hard regulations on political donations, many of their clients in banking and private equity are. Because they manage public pension funds, they Security Exchange Commission prohibits them from donating to political candidates.

Legal experts say that it’s not likely that corporate lawyers would be able to lobby effectively on behalf of their clients, because client needs are ever evolving. However, the few times lawyers from Paul Weiss, otherwise faithful democratic donors, have contributed to conservative candidates has been when they sit on the Senate Banking Committee. “They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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