COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Some of the hundreds of men who sued Ohio State over its failure to stop sexual abuse by a team doctor are seeking the recusal of the federal judge overseeing the remaining unsettled cases after he disclosed this month that his wife’s business has ties with the university.
The attorneys involved already knew U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson is an adjunct professor for OSU's law school, and over the past three years they hadn't objected to his handling the cases related to decades-old misconduct by the late Dr. Richard Strauss.
But information about the judge's wife's business prompted lawyers for some of the men to request a recusal and ask that the cases be moved to Cincinnati, noting that other federal judges in Columbus also have connections to the university.
They said the financial connection raises questions about the judge's impartiality and could at least give the appearance he's partial to Ohio State.
"But whether the conflict is real or apparent, the fact is that these plaintiffs, who were abused as teenage boys by the combined power of OSU and its team doctor, will never get justice in Columbus," attorneys for one set of plaintiffs argued in one of the filings.
Another filing noted that the judge and his wife participated in the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer fundraiser for OSU's cancer center and said that also could raise questions about whether he's perceived as impartial.
Ohio State responded with its own filings saying recusal is unwarranted, and alleging an improper “eleventh-hour attempt at forum shopping” based on business dealings unrelated to the litigation.
Watson's wife owns a flag business that has long been licensed to sell Ohio State merchandise and pays a 12% royalty to use its trademarks. The Flag Lady’s Flag Store also is one of about 34,000 vendors from which Ohio State purchases products and services, and the university spent less than $16,000 at the store in fiscal year 2021, school spokesperson Benjamin Johnson said.
Johnson said the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer is an independent entity.
Watson pointed out the licensing tie to attorneys in the Strauss cases after an NBC News Digital reporter asked the court about it, according to a court transcript. Watson told them he and his wife don't have financial interests in the university that would require his recusal under the code of conduct for federal judges, but that he wanted to give the lawyers a chance to address it if they felt his impartiality was compromised.
The recusal issue arises just as the parties involved were anticipating the judge would finally rule this month on whether to dismiss the remaining lawsuits based on legal time limits for bringing such cases. Now, oral arguments on that matter have been delayed.
Watson hasn't said how soon he will decide on the recusal requests.
More than 400 alumni have sued the university over its failure to stop Strauss despite students raising concerns with school employees as early as 1979. Many of the men say they were groped during exams.
Ohio State has apologized publicly to anyone harmed by Strauss, who died in 2005. It has reached nearly $47 million in settlements for 185 plaintiffs and offered an individual settlement program to plaintiffs in certain remaining lawsuits.
Several men in those cases recently notified the court they were taking individual settlements. But others contending the university hasn't dealt fairly with them say they aren't backing down.