A district court judge was assigned a federal civil rights case and habeas corpus petition. Both challenged a scheduled execution of the defendant, who was convicted in state court of murder after kidnapping and/ or sexual assault of his victims. Thirteen years earlier while he was in private practice the judge had a slight involvement in the case. Because his involvement was so minimal and because he had little memory of it, he refused to disqualify himself. Was this misconduct?
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The issue of slight involvement is rather subjective and not measurable. This is important because to make a full determination of conflict of interest on the part of the judge it is important to ascertain that the conflict is disabling and will eventually lead to the miscarriage of justice. To determine conflict of interest that would lead to misconduct, the primary interest has to be measured against secondary interests. In this case the Judge's primary interest is the dispensation of justice while the secondary interest is the “slight involvement”. The question to ask would be, is the judge’s past slight involvement with the accused and which the judge has no memory of going to impact his ability to dispense justice? In light of this, the judge will have committed misconduct if he previously served as a lawyer or witness for the accused in the same case. There are several other reasons that may lead to a judge’s disqualification which can be summed as reasonable prejudice or bias caused by secondary interests. In some jurisdictions provisions for recusing oneself are explicitly stipulated in the Rule of Civil Procedure but a judge should also personally consider questions arising from others because of his judgment.
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