Wednesday, May 4, 2016
As every veteran litigator knows, who the trial judge is not only a major determinant in the ultimate result of a case, but a major factor in how unpleasant and difficult the lawyer's life will be. There are judges, I suspect fewer than in the past, who are so biased to defendants and hostile to their lawyers, more often to defense lawyers than prosecutors, that the case is a nightmare for the lawyers (and obviously their clients). Reversals of judges for intemperate and biased conduct toward lawyers, or even the generally meaningless criticisms in cases that are not reversed, are rare. Defense lawyers, therefore, rejoice when one of those decisions is issued by an appellate court.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit in an unpublished opinion, United States v. Onyeabor, 13-50431 (April 27, 2016), reversed a conviction by a jury before Central District of California Judge Manuel Real primarily because the judge's remarks "devastated the defense, projected an appearance of hostility to the defense, and went far beyond the court's supervisory role" so that they "revealed such a high degree of antagonism as to make fair judgment impossible." This is not the first time the court has admonished Judge Real, who in 2006 was the subject of a Congressional investigation which considered but did not vote impeachment.
Almost every state has a judicial conduct commission which on occasion removes unfit judges. These commissions generally consist of a combination of judges, lawyers, and laypeople. There is no direct federal analog, although there is a somewhat clumsy apparatus whereby the judiciary itself may impose sanctions and recommend that Congress consider impeachment. Sanctions on federal judges for abusing lawyers and litigants are, to my knowledge, virtually non-existent. Although a federal judge apparently may be removed for beating a spouse (as Alabama District Judge Mark Fuller likely would have, had he not resigned) , he or she will likely not be sanctioned at all for beating up lawyers and defendants.