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Sixth Circuit: Trial Judge’s Personal and Condemnatory Remarks Directed Toward Defendant Requires Recusal

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a trial judge’s personal and condemnatory remarks directed toward a defendant required recusal of the judge.

Leron Liggins was charged with drug-related offenses in Michigan and Kentucky in 2018. Liggins stated his intention to plead guilty to the Kentucky charges, so pursuant to Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, his motion to transfer the case to the Western District of Michigan was granted, where both cases were heard by the same judge.

Several delays caused by Liggins’ various motions to terminate his attorneys as well as his decision to no longer plead guilty prompted the trial judge to state at a hearing on January 30, 2020: “I’m tired of this case. I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround. This has been going on since February 6, 2018. We’ve got a case out of Kentucky that came here under Rule 20. Rule 20 says the reason for the transfer was the defendant has agreed to plead guilty. I feel as if the Court has been misled. I’ve been told in an official pleading and informally the defendant was going to plead guilty. We cancelled jurors. We got a trial date. Now we got this.”

When Liggins attempted to address the court, the judge warned Liggins that because he was represented by counsel (attorney Joseph Arnone) if Liggins said anything, the judge would “have [Liggins] hauled out of here.” The judge then continued: “This guy has got my attention, Mr. Arnone. What do you want me to do? This guy looks like a criminal to me. This is what criminals do. This isn’t what innocent people, who want a fair trial do. He’s indicted in Kentucky. He’s indicted here. He’s alleged to be dealing heroin, which addicts, hurts and kills people, and he’s playing games with the court.”

Ultimately, Liggins was tried by jury on October 19, 2021. The day before trial, Liggins moved for recusal of the judge under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) based on the judge’s remarks at the January 30, 2020, hearing. The judge denied the motion. The jury convicted Liggins, and he was sentenced to 127 months’ imprisonment. He timely appealed, arguing that the judge abused his discretion by failing to recuse himself.

The Court observed “[t]he Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires a ‘fair trial in a fair tribunal before a judge with no actual bias against the defendant.’” Bracy v. Gramley, 520 U.S. 899 (1997). “Under the Due Process Clause, ‘recusal is required when, objectively speaking, the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’” Rippo v. Baker, 580 U.S. 285 (2017).

The standard for recusal is “not whether a judge harbors an actual, subjective bias, but instead whether, as an objective matter, the average judge in his position is likely to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional potential for bias.” Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. 1 (2016). The Court observed that both “the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law itself.” Id. Therefore, “an unconstitutional failure to recuse is structural error and thus not amenable to harmless error review.” Id. While the “Due Process Clause demarks only the outer boundaries of judicial disqualifications…. Recusal questions are, in most cases, answered by common law, statute, or the professional standards of the bench and bar.” Bracy. The Court noted that the recusal standard is difficult “to reach.”

Under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a), all “judge[s] of the United States” must “disqualify [themselves] in any proceeding in which [their] impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The terms “bias and prejudice connote instances of partiality or opinions that are ‘somehow wrongful or inappropriate.’” Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540 (1994) (characterized as the Supreme Court’s leading case on recusal under § 455). Mere “expressions of impatience, dissatisfaction, annoyance, and even anger, that are within the bounds of what imperfect men and women … sometimes display,” by contrast, do not establish such bias or partiality. Id.

In the present case, what the Court found most troubling was the judge’s comment that Liggins—a Black man—“looks like a criminal to me.” Aside from the specter of racial bias (whether actual or not), the judge also stated that Liggins was doing “what criminals do.” Yet, Liggins was merely zealously guarding his rights, according to the Court. The judge’s “remarks served no purpose for courtroom administration, but rather constituted gratuitous commentary by the district judge about his opinion of Liggins and his feelings about Liggins’ case,” explained the Court. Furthermore, the Court stated that the remarks were beyond simple “expressions of impatience, dissatisfaction, annoyance, [or] anger,” but instead, they indicated “prejudgment of guilt.”

The Court concluded: “Instead of maintaining the decorum essential to the administration of justice, the district judge permitted himself to make personal and condemnatory remarks about the criminal defendant before him. Such remarks are wholly incompatible with the fair administration of justice.” Thus, the Court determined that the judge abused his discretion in denying Liggins’ recusal motion.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of conviction and sentence and assigned the case to a different judge on remand for a new trial. See: United States v. Liggins, 76 F.4th 500 (6th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

United States v. Liggins

 

 

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