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United States v. McAllister

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

March 3, 2017




         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant McAllister's Motion for Disqualification of U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton. Dkt. #79. Upon review of the motion, Judge Leighton declined to recuse himself. Dkt. #82. In accordance with the Local Rules of this District, Defendant's motion was referred to the Undersigned for a review of Judge Leighton's refusal to recuse. LCR 3(e).

         Defendant bases his motion to recuse on his allegations of “a long-standing conflict of interest demonstrated in the record, ” a record which Defendant maintains is evidence of Judge Leighton's bias against him. Dkt. #79 at 2.

         Defendant's evidence of impartiality on Judge Leighton's part consists of the following:

         (1) At some point during his criminal proceeding, Defendant moved to withdraw his plea of guilty “based on the fact that Mr. Hester, defense counsel, told me that if I didn't plead guilty, he would withdraw from my case.” Id. at 5. Judge Leighton declined to rule on Defendant's motion to withdraw his plea at the time, and it appears from the excerpts of the hearing Defendant included in his “Affidavit of Judicial Bias” that Judge Leighton did not credit Defendant's allegations of what his defense counsel's had told him. Id.[1]

         (2) During the hearing on the motion to withdraw his plea, Defendant made a request to be transferred back to Airway Heights Detention Center. Judge Leighton denied that request because the facility to which Defendant requested a transfer was a state detention center and Defendant was charged with federal offenses. The judge characterized his position as: “The Bureau of Prisons, they own your ass. I don't interfere with their decisions about where you are going to be.” Dkt. #82 at 4(quoting Transcript of Withdrawal Hearing at Dkt. #69 at 7).

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455(a), a judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which him impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.” Federal judges also shall disqualify themselves in circumstances where they have a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding. 28 U.S.C. § 455(b)(1).

         Under both 28 U.S.C. §144 and 28 U.S.C. § 455, recusal of a federal judge is appropriate if “a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts would conclude that the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Yagman v. Republic Insurance, 987 F.2d 622, 626 (9th Cir.1993). This is an objective inquiry concerned with whether there is the appearance of bias, not whether there is bias in fact. Preston v. United States, 923 F.2d 731, 734 (9th Cir.1992); United States v. Conforte, 624 F.2d 869, 881 (9th Cir.1980). In Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540 (1994), the United States Supreme Court further explained the narrow basis for recusal:

[J]udicial rulings alone almost never constitute a valid basis for a bias or partiality motion. . . . [O]pinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings, or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible. Thus, judicial remarks during the course of a trial that are critical or disapproving of, or even hostile to, counsel, the parties, or their cases, ordinarily do not support a bias or partiality challenge.

Id. at 555.

         Defendant's evidence does not constitute proof of bias or prejudice on the part of Judge Leighton. Declining to credit Defendant's version of what he had been told by counsel (in the face of counsel's denial of making the statements) is not an act of bias or prejudice. The fact that Judge Leighton appointed new counsel for Defendant and advised him that he could renew his motion with the help of his new attorney (see excerpt of hearing quoted in Dkt. #70 at 3) is evidence of just the opposite.[2]

         Judge Leighton's use of a colloquial expression to describe his inability to alter Defendant's custodial status does not demonstrate (as Defendant claims) “hostility and disrespect.” Dkt. #79 at 6. The use of “ass” was clearly not intended to describe Defendant. None of Defendant's submissions are sufficient to form the basis of a valid request for recusal.

         A judge's conduct in the context of pending judicial proceedings does not constitute the requisite bias under 28 U.S.C. § 144 or § 455 if it is prompted solely by information that the judge received in the context of the performance of his duties. Bias is almost never established simply because the judge issued adverse rulings against a party.

         In order to overcome the presumption that Judge Leighton is impartial in this matter, Defendant would have to show that facts outside the record influenced decisions or that the judge's rulings were so irrational that they must be the result of prejudice. Defendant does not allege any facts outside the record that improperly influenced the decisions in this matter and a review of the rulings in this ...

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