Monday, February 6, 2023

The Sting

A probate matter in which the judge had entered orders that extinguished two attorneys liens drew a timely recusal motion and orders vacated by the Tennessee Court of Appeals

All these facts are but a prelude to the controversy giving rise to this appeal. On August 4, 2022, attorney Joseph Townsend defeated Judge Webster for reelection. The new judge had some history with the Watson Brown firm. While still an attorney in 2018, Judge Townsend was hired as an expert witness in opposition to a fee application by the Watson Burns firm. He was highly critical of the fee request, calling it “clearly excessive” and criticizing their billing records as “unintelligible.”

Apparently, attorney Townsend’s criticisms still stung, for at a status conference on the issues of freezing access to the trusts and enforcement of the firms’ liens on September 26, 2022, Mr. Watson made an oral motion asking for Judge Townsend’s recusal. Judge Townsend stated, “Yeah, I don’t think I have a conflict, but we’ll look at the issues in this case and have a full disclosure, et cetera, et cetera, obviously before we proceed too far.” The next day Judge Townsend held the previously scheduled status conference regarding the mediation. Judge Townsend entered the four settlement orders, thereby extinguishing the firms’ liens on the 1984 and 1991 Trusts. No one raised the issue of recusal. The firms filed motions to alter and amend the ruling, which the court orally denied on November 2, 2022, maintaining that the firms were not parties before the court.

As to recusal

Judge Townsend did not follow the Supreme Court’s rules. He entered an order on December 7, 2022, without stating good cause for not obeying the dictates of Rule 10B, § 1.02, and he failed to address the motion to recuse as required in Rule 10B, § 1.03. Consequently, we must vacate the December 7, 2022 order and any orders in the interpleader action that Judge Townsend has filed since. Furthermore, Judge Townsend is instructed to file a response to the motion to recuse in the interpleader action promptly. If he denies the motion, the response must state in writing the grounds upon which he denied the motion. If he denies the motion, the firms may seek further appellate relief as they deem necessary and appropriate.

(Mike Frisch)

Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink


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