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Morris v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 27, 2019

Cory Deonn Morris, Petitioner,
Charles L. Ryan, et al., Respondents.


          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge

         Petitioner Cory Deonn Morris has filed a motion for recusal. (Doc. 55) Respondents oppose the motion. (Doc. 57). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was sentenced to death in Arizona state court and remains in state custody. He filed a petition for habeas corpus on February 20, 2018. (Doc. 21.) Because the statutory standard for disqualification found in 28 U.S.C. § 455 must be self-enforced by judges, see United States v. Conforte, 624 F.2d 869, 880 (9th Cir. 1980), the Court provided notice to the parties that Arizona District Court Judge Douglas Rayes, formerly a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, presided over Petitioner's state-court trial and post-conviction proceedings. (Doc. 51.) The Court examined its duty to recuse and found that the circumstances presented no basis for disqualification, but allowed the parties to brief their views on the propriety of recusal. (Doc. 51.)

         Petitioner claims in this case that Judge Rayes violated his constitutional rights through various errors in post-conviction proceedings. (Doc. 55.) Petitioner argues that the undersigned judge should recuse from this case because Judge Rayes is now a judicial colleague. He argues that a reasonable person would conclude that the undersigned - and every other judge in this district - will be unable to set aside his relationship with a colleague and will, even if unconsciously, be inclined to believe that Judge Rayes did not err. (Id.) After considering the facts and applicable law, the Court does not agree.

         II. Applicable Law

         Judges are presumed to be honest and to serve with integrity. See Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975); Larson v. Palmateer, 515 F.3d 1057, 1067 (9th Cir. 2008). In the absence of a reasonable factual basis for recusal, a judge should participate in cases assigned to him. United States v. Holland, 519 F.3d 909, 912 (9th Cir. 2008). Federal judges are, however, required by § 455(a) to recuse from any proceeding in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned, even where no conflict of interest actually exists. Milgard Tempering, Inc. v. Selas Corp. of Am., 902 F.2d 703, 714 (9th Cir. 1990).

         The standard is objective: “whether a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts would conclude that the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” United States v. Nelson, 718 F.2d 315, 321 (9th Cir. 1983). Stated differently, the question is whether a reasonable person would perceive a significant risk that the judge will resolve the case on a basis other than the merits. In re Mason, 916 F.2d 384, 385 (7th Cir. 1990). The reasonable person in this context means a well-informed, thoughtful observer, not a “‘hypersensitive or unduly suspicious person.'” Clemens v. U.S. Dist. Court for Cent. Dist. of California, 428 F.3d 1175, 1178 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Mason, 916 F.2d at 386). And because there is always “some risk” of partiality, the risk must be “substantially out of the ordinary.” Mason, 916 F.2d at 386 (emphasis in original). Only “highly exceptional circumstances” mandate disqualification of an entire district, which Petitioner's motion would require in this case. See Clemens, 428 F.3d at 1180.

         Analysis of a recusal motion is “necessarily fact-driven” and “must be guided . . . by an independent examination of the unique facts and circumstances of the particular claim at issue.” Holland, 519 F.3d at 913. Recusal under § 455(a) should not be based on “‘[r]umor, speculation, beliefs, conclusions, innuendo, suspicion, opinion, and similar non-factual matters.'” Clemens, 428 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Nichols v. Alley, 71 F.3d 347, 351 (10th Cir. 1995)).

         A judge is duty-bound to hear an assigned case when there is no legitimate reason to recuse. Holland, 519 F.3d at 912; Clemens, 428 F.3d at 1179. Indeed, “a judge has ‘as strong a duty to sit when there is no legitimate reason to recuse as he does to recuse when the law and facts require.'” Clemens, 428 F.3d at 1179 (quoting Nichols, 71 F.3d at 351). “[S]ection 455(a) must not be so broadly construed that it becomes, in effect, presumptive, so that recusal is mandated upon the merest unsubstantiated suggestion of personal bias or prejudice.” Holland, 519 F.3d at 913.

         III. Analysis

         The Court begins with the “critically important” identification of the specific factual circumstances that might “cause an objective observer to question [the Court's] impartiality.” Liljeberg v. Health Servs. Acquisition Corp., 486 U.S. 847, 865 (1988). Here, there is only one: the undersigned's judicial colleague on the United States District Court, when serving as a state court judge, presided over Petitioner's trial and post-conviction proceedings. No. other fact is presented, and the Court concludes that this fact alone does not warrant disqualification. For reasons discussed below, a reasonable observer with knowledge of all the facts would not, without more, question the impartiality of the Court in presiding over this federal habeas case.

         Petitioner cites several cases in support of his motion. In United States v. Singer (Singer II), 575 F.Supp. 63, 68 (D. Minn. 1983), the judge at issue was the Chief Judge of the District of Minnesota, whose extensive comments and judicial coaching of the prosecutor in front of the jury resulted in reversal of the conviction on appeal and remand for a new trial. See United States v. Singer (Singer I), 710 F.2d 431, 436 (8th Cir. 1983).

         On remand, the Chief Judge recused himself and a district court judge from the same bench was assigned to the case. Singer II, 575 F.Supp. at 68. The newly assigned judge recused herself because the Chief Judge was the subject of pending motions and might be called as a witness. The court determined that a reasonable person could question whether judges in the district “might be affected in ruling, either consciously or subconsciously, by friendship or a spirit of collegiality or because of the relationship between judges on the same bench.” Id. Similarly, the entire Arizona District Court bench recused itself in a capital habeas case when an evidentiary hearing was set at which a magistrate judge, formerly petitioner's defense counsel, was the subject of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim ...

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