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York v. United States

District of Columbia Court of Appeals

November 08, 2001


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F-9963-96) (Hon. Linda D. Turner, Trial Judge)

Before Terry and Reid, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Submitted September 21, 2000

This is an appeal from a conviction on two counts of assault. *fn1 At trial, appellant York moved for recusal of the trial judge, arguing that the fact that the judge was married to a police officer and that her late brother had been Chief of Police several years earlier created an appearance of bias in favor of one of the complainants, a police officer, and other witnesses who were also police officers. On appeal York maintains that the judge's failure to recuse herself was reversible error. We affirm.


On November 13, 1996, York attended a public meeting in the District of Columbia concerning the possible federalization of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). At the meeting, York took a microphone from the moderator and launched into a lengthy discourse concerning his personal distaste for the police force. When he refused to yield the microphone, a scuffle ensued, during which York punched the moderator and tackled a uniformed police officer. *fn2 Appellant was arrested by other officers present at the meeting and charged with two counts of assault.

The case was set for trial before a Superior Court judge, sitting without a jury. *fn3 Before the trial began, the judge asked counsel to approach the bench, where she disclosed the following:

I see from the trial calendar that the complainant may be a police officer. . . . I just wanted to disclose to counsel that I'm married to a police officer. I always disclose that when I'm the fact finder in these kinds of cases.

Defense counsel responded that he would "have a motion then," and the judge responded that counsel was "free to make it when [his] client appear[ed]." Because appellant was late in arriving, the case was passed for fifteen minutes while the judge took up other matters.

Appellant soon arrived at the courthouse, and the trial began. At the outset, defense counsel made an oral motion to recuse the judge, stating that "there is certainly an appearance of a conflict, in view of the exposure that the court has had to police officers and your familiarity with them." The judge denied the motion, stating:

Well, the court does raise, in these particular cases where there is a police officer who is a complainant, the fact that it is married to a police officer. I really don't even disclose that I had a brother, who is now deceased, who was Chief of Police. *fn4 That was years and years ago. But I do disclose the fact that I'm married to a police officer who is a detective . . . . So given that there has been no bias pointed to, actual bias outside of the courtroom, the court will deny the motion, but it's preserved for the record.

Defense counsel made no further argument in support of his motion to recuse. The trial proceeded, and the judge found appellant guilty on both counts of assault, sentencing him to two concurrent jail terms of thirty days each.


Appellant maintains on appeal, as he did below, that the judge's family relationship with two police officers created an appearance of judicial impartiality and that his conviction should therefore be reversed. We do not agree.

In the first place, appellant's motion to recuse the trial judge was procedurally deficient. When, as in this case, a party moves for judicial recusal based on an alleged "personal bias or prejudice against the party or in favor of any adverse party," the motion is governed by Super. Ct. Civ. R. 63-I. *fn5 See In re Bell, 373 A.2d 232, 233 (D.C. 1977). In an effort to eliminate what may be frivolous claims, see In re J.A., 601 A.2d 69, 75-76 (D.C. 1991), Rule 63-I (b) requires a party alleging judicial bias to file, along with a certificate of good faith, an affidavit asserting the factual basis for the claim. See In re Bell, 373 A.2d at 234. When the affidavit is "sufficient" under the rule, a judge must recuse himself or herself from the case. See Rule 63-I (a); In re Evans, 411 A.2d 984, 994 (D.C. 1980). However, "because the disqualification of a trial judge may disrupt and delay the judicial process, affidavits of bias are strictly scrutinized for form, timeliness and sufficiency." Id. (citation omitted).

After the judge's disclosure of her family relationships, but before the trial actually began or any testimony was taken, appellant made an oral motion for recusal; however, he never filed an affidavit or a certificate of good faith as required by Rule 63-I. Such procedural deficiencies are, in and of themselves, sufficient reason for a trial judge to deny a recusal motion. See Browner v. District of Columbia, 549 A.2d 1107, 1113 (D.C. 1988); Burt v. First American Bank, 490 A.2d 182, 187 (D.C. 1985); Taylor v. United States, 451 A.2d 859, 860 n.1 (D.C. 1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 936 (1983). Appellant contends that the procedures required by Rule 63-I are inapplicable in this case because the judge's marriage to a police officer was not known until she disclosed it just before the trial was about to begin. We reject this argument. Although we have held the procedural requirements of Rule 63-I inapplicable when judicial bias becomes apparent only from a judge's conduct during the course of a trial, see In re J.A., 601 A.2d at 75, the judge's disclosure in this case was made before trial. In similar circumstances we have held that the affidavit requirement still applies. See Taylor, 451 A.2d at 860 n.1 (oral recusal motion made before testimony began was properly denied when counsel returned from recess without an affidavit or a witness supporting allegations of bias); cf. Gillum v. United States, 613 A.2d 366, 369 (D.C. 1992) (recusal motion considered timely when first motion to recuse was made orally, but was supported with subsequent motions in writing and with affidavit). Therefore, since appellant's recusal motion was procedurally deficient, the trial judge did not err in denying it. *fn6


Putting aside the procedural deficiencies of appellant's motion, we address the substance of appellant's claim of bias to resolve an issue that has a high likelihood of recurring and to avoid "leav[ing] the meritless but unanswered charges hanging." Browner, 549 A.2d at 1113. We hold that, because the "average citizen" would not reasonably question the judge's impartiality, Scott v. United States, 559 A.2d 745, 749 (D.C. 1989) (en banc), recusal was not required in this assault case in which one of the two complainants and other testifying government witnesses were police officers, notwithstanding that the judge was married to a police detective and, in addition, had a brother, deceased at the time of trial, who had previously been the Chief of Police.

Public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary is essential to our criminal justice system. In order to preserve the integrity of the judiciary, and to ensure that justice is carried out in each individual case, judges must adhere to high standards of conduct. See Scott, 559 A.2d at 748. In furtherance of these standards, the Code of Judicial Conduct for the District of Columbia Courts, which is binding on judges of this court and the Superior Court, *fn7 requires a judge to recuse from any case in which there is " `an appearance of bias or prejudice sufficient to permit the average citizen reasonably to question [the] judge's impartiality.' " *fn8 Id. at 749 (quoting United States v. Heldt, 215 U.S. App. D.C. 206, 239, 668 F.2d 1238, 1271 (1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 926 (1982)); see Code of Judicial Conduct for the District of Columbia Courts, Canon 3 (1995). Thus, even if there is no bias in fact, an appearance of bias or prejudice requires recusal if it is sufficient to raise a question in the mind of "the average citizen" about the judge's impartiality.

We are satisfied that, on the present record, no reasonable observer could question the trial judge's impartiality. *fn9 Appellant's claim of bias rests on the bare assertion that the judge's family relationships with police officers, in and of themselves, created an appearance of judicial bias warranting recusal. While an appearance of bias resulting solely from a judge's personal relationships may require recusal in some circumstances, see, e.g., Scott, 559 A.2d at 747-748, this is not such a case. Weighing heavily in our determination is the fact that appellant failed to establish any significant connection between the judge's husband or deceased brother and the facts, parties, or witnesses involved in this case. See United States v. Cooley, 1 F.3d 985, 993 (10th Cir. 1993) ("Ordinarily, rumors and speculation will not satisfy the requirements for disqualification of a judge"), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1104 (1995).

The Code of Judicial Conduct requires recusal when "the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party . . . or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding." Canon 3 (E)(1)(a). Appellant has not even begun to show that the judge displayed any actual bias during the course of the trial in favor of the complainant or other testifying police officers, *fn10 cf. Turman v. United States, 555 A.2d 1037 (D.C. 1989) (reversing conviction because of the trial judge's comments indicating actual bias in favor of a testifying police officer), or that she had independent knowledge of any disputed evidentiary facts, cf. Belton v. United States, 581 A.2d 1205 (D.C. 1990) (sentence vacated and case remanded because the trial judge, at the sentencing proceedings, disclosed that he had learned from conversations outside the courtroom that the defendant had a bad reputation). Without such a showing, recusal was not required under Canon 3 (E)(1)(a).

Recusal is also required if the judge or the judge's spouse "has an economic interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding or has any other more than de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding." Canon 3 (E)(1)(c). Appellant argues that the trial judge here should have recused herself because the professional interests of the members of the MPD, and by extension their families, were at stake in the public forum in which the assaults occurred. Although it is true that the assaults took place at a meeting that was called to discuss the proposed pending federalization of the MPD (which never came to pass), and that the judge or her husband might have had some theoretical interest in the outcome of the meeting, any connection between the controversy in this case (whether appellant committed two assaults) and the possible interest the judge or her husband may have had in the subject matter of the meeting is too attenuated to warrant recusal. Appellant has not shown that either the judge or her husband, as salaried government officials, had any financial interest that could have been affected in any way by the outcome of this trial.

Furthermore, from the mere fact that police officers, including one of the two complainants, testified at appellant's trial, we cannot conclude that a reasonable person would impute to the judge or her husband an interest that "could be substantially affected" by the outcome of the proceeding. It is of course true, as Justice Jackson remarked years ago, that police officers are "engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime," Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14 (1948), and one might reasonably believe that the judge's husband, as a police detective, has a professional interest in the successful outcome of criminal prosecutions. However, nothing in the record indicates that he had any supervisory authority over the police officers involved in the assault, or indeed any connection whatsoever with those officers other than their common employment by the MPD. *fn11 Without a more direct and tangible connection, it is most unlikely that a reasonable person would regard the general professional interest that the judge's husband might have in obtaining criminal convictions as "substantially affected" by the outcome of this particular assault case. Recusal was therefore not required under Canon 3 (E)(1)(c).

Finally, a judge must recuse if the judge or the judge's spouse, or any relative within the third degree, "is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director or trustee of a party . . . ." Canon 3 (E)(1)(d). *fn12 The husband of the judge in this case was not a party to the proceeding, and we do not read this canon as requiring recusal solely because another member of the MPD was a complainant in the underlying assault prosecution. Although her spouse is an "officer" of the MPD, the MPD itself was not a "party" in the trial, but merely the employer of some of the witnesses. The fact that the United States was an actual party in its prosecutorial function does not establish that the judge's husband was "an officer . . . of a party" within the meaning of the canon. And of course the judge's brother, deceased at the time of trial, was not a party in any sense of the word.

We therefore hold that the trial judge in this case was not required by the Code of Judicial Conduct to recuse herself. The judgment of conviction is


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