A trial court judge did not have to disqualify himself from the defendant’s criminal case even though the judge had publicly endorsed the prosecutor in a Circuit Court election campaign, the Michigan Court of Appeals has decided.
In People v Koepke (Docket No. 337286, unpublished opinion), the Court of Appeals held that Iosco County Circuit Judge Christopher P. Martin did not have to disqualify himself from the defendant’s case pursuant to MCR 2.003(C)(1). Under this court rule, judicial disqualification is warranted when:
(a) The judge is biased or prejudiced for or against a party or attorney.
(b) The judge, based on objective and reasonable perceptions, has either (i) a serious risk of actual bias impacting the due process rights of a party as enunciated in Caperton v Massey, 566 US 868; 129 S Ct 2252; 173 L Ed 2d 1208 (2009), or (ii) has failed to adhere to the appearance of impropriety standard set forth in Canon 2 of the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct.
According to the Court, disqualification in the defendant’s criminal sexual conduct case was unnecessary under either MCR 2.003(C)(1)(a) or (b).
Because Judge Martin had expressly stated that he was fair and impartial, and given the “heavy presumption” that a judge is, indeed, impartial, “we see no reason to find any actual bias or prejudice,” the Court said. “Thus, judicial disqualification was not required pursuant to MCR 2.003(C)(1)(a).”
As for MCR 2.003(C)(1)(b), “Judge Martin’s endorsement of the prosecutor as a judicial candidate did not demonstrate an appearance of impropriety,” the Court stated.
‘We All Go Back’
The defendant was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct. The defendant filed a motion to disqualify the first judge assigned to the case, Judge William F. Myles, claiming the judge was personally biased against him because Judge Myles had endorsed in the upcoming election the prosecutor assigned to the case. Without a hearing, Judge Myles disqualified himself from the case based on the “objective perceptions of the appearance of impropriety.”
Judge Martin was subsequently assigned to the defendant’s case. He sent a letter to defense counsel disclosing that he had endorsed the prosecutor in a Circuit Court election campaign. Judge Martin further stated that he had “assisted defense counsel in various attempts at office and [had] considered him a friend for longer than [he] ha[s] known the current prosecutor.” As a result, Judge Martin indicated that he did not believe his “long term friendship with either attorney in the matter” would keep him from fulfilling his duties in the case.
The defendant then filed a motion to disqualify Judge Martin pursuant to MCR 2.003(C)(1)(a) and (b). He maintained that Judge Martin was personally biased against him because the judge had endorsed the prosecutor assigned to his case in a Circuit Court election campaign. The defendant cited various newspaper and radio ads where Judge Martin endorsed the prosecutor.
At a hearing, Judge Martin asked defense counsel if he really believed the defendant would not get a fair and impartial trial if he presided over the matter. Defense counsel responded, “No. No, I didn’t … you and I are friends. [The prosecutor] and I are friends. We all go back … we understand ethics … [but] it’s not about me.”
Defense counsel noted that he had explained to his client that Judge Martin had previously endorsed him (defense counsel) for a judgeship, that their friendship went “way back prior to law school” and that the judge had previously represented defense counsel in a civil matter.
Defense counsel emphasized he knew that Judge Martin could be fair and impartial, but that the defendant did not believe Judge Martin could be fair.
Meanwhile, Judge Martin emphasized that he took an oath to be fair and impartial, and that he intended to follow that oath. Accordingly, the judge found that he did not have any grounds to recuse himself from the case and denied the recusal motion. Thereafter, the chief judge of the Iosco Circuit Court ruled there was no basis to disqualify Judge Martin from the case.
‘Heavy Presumption’ Of Impartiality
On appeal, the defendant argued that because Judge Martin publicly endorsed the prosecutor in an election campaign, he should have recused himself as the trial judge.
“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals stated, noting there is a “heavy presumption” of judicial impartiality that must be overcome to sustain a judicial recusal.
“In the present case, the record does not support that the trial judge was biased or prejudiced pursuant to MCR 2.003(C)(1)(a),” the Court wrote. “While Judge Martin endorsed the prosecutor in her bid for judicial election, Judge Martin also previously aided defense counsel as a judicial candidate, eliminating any indication that Judge Martin favored one attorney over the other.”
In addition, the Court pointed out that Judge Martin: 1) indicated he had no financial or other interest in the outcome of the prosecutor’s election, 2) assured the parties that his relationship with the prosecutor and defense counsel would not affect his behavior on the case and 3) asserted the defendant would get a fair trial.
“Moreover, defendant has not presented or identified any evidence supporting that, through Judge Martin’s endorsement of the prosecutor, he somehow became personally biased against defendant or defense counsel,” the Court wrote. “Given the express statement by Judge Martin and the heavy presumption that a judge is impartial, we see no reason to find any actual bias or prejudice.”
Disqualification was also not required under MCR 2.003(C)(1)(b), the Court said. “Again, while Judge Martin endorsed the prosecutor in her campaign for a judgeship, he previously aided defense counsel in his bid for a similar position. Further, Judge Martin disclosed this information to both parties beforehand to preserve the integrity of the proceedings and to keep all parties fully informed.”
Judge Martin’s endorsement of the prosecutor as a Circuit Court candidate did not demonstrate an appearance of impropriety, the Court explained. “Indeed, reasonable minds would not expect such an endorsement to impair Judge Martin’s ability to carry out his judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality, and competence because he had the same relationship with both the prosecutor and defense counsel.”
This was not the type of “extreme” case where the probability of actual judicial bias was “too high” to be constitutionally tolerable, the Court concluded. “Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying defendant’s motion for disqualification.”