Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Judge Not Thy Former Firm's Cases

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has resolved the following issue:

The issue presented is whether a judge who sued her former law firm for unpaid compensation and lost should have recused herself from cases involving that firm, four years after the Supreme Judicial Court decided the case.  Applying the two-part test set forth in Lena v. Commonwealth, 369 Mass. 571, 575 (1976), the judge concluded that she held no actual bias, and that no reasonable person would question her impartiality.  We agree that there is no basis for recusal on the grounds of actual bias.  However, given the protracted litigation, the judge's personal involvement in the lawsuit, the amount at  stake, and the judge's inconsistent rulings on prior recusal motions, "an objective appraisal of whether this was 'a proceeding in which [her] impartiality might reasonably be questioned' " compels the conclusion that recusal was warranted.  Ibid., quoting from S.J.C. Rule 3:25, Canon 3(C)(1)(a), 359 Mass. 841 (1972).  Accordingly, we reverse the judge's orders denying recusal and remand these consolidated cases for further proceedings.

The conclusion:

We have no reason to question the judge's good-faith belief that she could decide these cases fairly and impartially.  However, even the appearance of partiality undermines confidence in the judicial system.  In light of the judge's long-term relationship with [her former law firm] Morrison, the subsequent protracted litigation, her active participation in that dispute, the amount of the claim at stake, and her inconsistent rulings on prior recusal motions, we conclude that a reasonable person might question her impartiality.  We therefore reverse the orders denying the judge's disqualification and remand for further proceedings before other judges. The stays previously entered in these matters are lifted.

The case is Commonwealth v. RV Morgan, LLC, decided today. (Mike Frisch)

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Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink

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