South Carolina federal judge reprimanded for lucrative contract with ex-employer

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  • 4th Circuit publicly reprimands U.S. District Judge Joseph Dawson
  • At issue is separation agreement with Charleston County, South Carolina

(Reuters) - A U.S. district judge in South Carolina is being reprimanded for signing a contract with Charleston County, where he long served as county attorney prior to his judicial appointment, that guaranteed him $216,000 plus a fee for any opioid litigation settlements it won after he joined the federal bench.

The 4th Circuit Judicial Council on Friday issued a rare public reprimand to U.S. District Judge Joseph Dawson, saying the agreement and the $216,000 he was paid "undermined the public’s confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

The council said there was no evidence Dawson violated ethics rules by practicing law on the county's behalf while serving as a judge and credited him for later amending his contract to forfeit his rights to the opioid contingency fee.

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But the nine-judge council said his arrangement for the $216,000 created the appearance he "received a large payment on the eve of taking the bench for no coherent reason," or worse, that he had agreed to practice law while on the bench.

The reprimand followed an investigation by a special committee of judges into allegations raised in a pair of misconduct complaints against Dawson including one by the judicial reform group Fix the Court.

The special committee, advised by Geoffrey Klineberg of Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, had recommended just a private reprimand. But U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King, writing for the council, said the "public concern requires a public response."

Dawson apologized for any harm he caused. He did not respond to requests for comment.

At issue was a separation agreement that Dawson, an appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump, signed with the county, which was concerned about a potential information void that would occur when he left his job as county attorney.

Dawson under a deal signed just a week before he won U.S. Senate confirmation in December 2020 stood to earn $216,000 plus a 1.5% contingency fee for his work on a lawsuit the county filed accusing drugmakers like Purdue Pharma of fueling the opioid epidemic.

After he became a judge, county officials at times asked him about historical information such as where to find certain documentation, Friday's order said.

After the South Carolina newspaper The Post and Courier reported on the deal in February 2021, Fix the Court filed the first judicial misconduct complaint against Dawson.

Following public criticism of the deal, Dawson entered into an amended contract in May 2021 where he gave up his right to the opioid contingency fee and specified that the $216,000 was for past, not future, legal work.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at