Would Adopting a Law Permitting a Peremptory Disqualification of a Judge be Prudent in Massachusetts?

While following the Aaron Hernandez Massachusetts murder case I was struck by the prosecutor’s motion asking Judge Garsh to recuse herself. According to several news sources, Bristol County prosecutor William McCauley claimed that in 2010 Garsh displayed hostility towards him by accusing him of wrongfully excluding evidence. He further complained that this judge undermined his credibility before a jury. McCauley filed a similar motion in 2011 that was never argued. Instead, the case ended up before another judge. Garsh denied McCauley’s motion and will preside over the proceedings and perhaps the trial itself.

While there is nothing novel about asking a judge to recuse himself for cause in Massachusetts it is done sparingly. If the judge decides not to step down from the case the challenging party risks retaliation. Such actions will likely be subtle. Rulings may be less likely to go your way. The judge can use the inflection in his voice to undermine your efforts. Your opponent might be shamelessly embraced in a manner visible to the jury but not captured in the trial transcript. Simply put, if the judge wants to screw you for filing such a motion he can. Now of course retaliation is impermissible yet good luck trying to prove that it happened to you. In this particular case I sincerely doubt that McCauley will suffer consequences for trying to have Garsh remove herself from this case. As a matter of fact, given the media attention this case has been getting and will be getting it will be difficult for Garsh not to bend over backwards to prove that she has no bias towards the prosecution.

On the other hand, I cannot understand why a judge, being accused of bias would not simply step away from a case. Naturally, Judge Garsh’s words “I do not fear or favor the Commonwealth or the defendant” resonate nicely. But why stay on the case? Acceding to a recusal request is not an admission of fear. Nor does stepping away from this case acknowledge agreement that McCauley’s accusations of unfairness are true. There are literally thousands of other cases to sit on. The judge could simply step aside and before doing so rule that she has no bias. She would merely be avoiding any appearance of impropriety and she could then pass the case on to another judge.

Unlike some other states, there is no peremptory challenge of judges in Massachusetts. Alaska Statute 22.20.022 permits a peremptory challenge to a sitting judge if the challenging party files an affidavit alleging that with this judge a fair and impartial trial cannot be obtained. California C.C.P. Sec 170.6 allows for the peremptory challenge of a judge without the need to give the court a factual basis for its belief that the judge is biased. These laws make a lot of sense. They tend to keep reminding judges of the need to be fair and respectful of the litigants. They promote confidence in the judiciary. They eliminate favoritism. If a party is uncomfortable with a perceived relationship between the judge and an opponent he can remove the judge from the proceeding. This is a nice check against judicial ignorance. Judges who are routinely victimized by peremptory challenges might modify their behavior. They might read the advance sheets. They might be nicer to the litigants. They might learn to act appropriately.

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