The Sixth Circuit has further defined the scope of judicial recusal under federal law by weighing in on a judge’s close personal relationship with an attorney involved in a case.

In United States v. Prince (6th Cir., Case No. 08-6547, Aug. 26, 2010) (PDF), the Sixth Circuit rejected a defendant’s claim that his due process rights were violated when the district court judge refused to disqualify himself sua sponte from deciding the defendant’s motion for a new trial.  The defendant had argued that his motion for a new trial required the judge to assess the credibility of Michael Prince, a key witness for the prosecution, but the witness was being represented by an attorney who previously had represented the district judge in an unrelated matter before the Sixth Circuit involving judicial misconduct.  The defendant claimed that the judge’s impartiality was undermined because the judge expressly declined to discredit Michael Prince’s testimony in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial.

The Sixth Circuit rejected the defendant’s claim.  In an opinion written by Judge Guy, and joined by Judge Griffin and District Judge Wilhoit of the Eastern District of Kentucky, the court first focused on the mandate of 28 U.S.C. § 455, which requires a federal judge to disqualify himself “in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”  28 U.S.C. § 455(a).  The Sixth Circuit has recognized that recusal is required under § 455(a) “if a reasonable, objective person, knowing all of the circumstances, would have questioned the judge’s impartiality.”  Johnson v. Mitchell, 585 F.3d 923, 945 (6th Cir. 2009) (PDF) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The Sixth Circuit in Prince determined that the defendant offered “no reason, beyond the alleged fact of the prior representation, to suspect bias against the defendant or favoritism toward the witness,” nor was there “any suggestion that the prior proceeding was related in any way to this case.”  The court concluded that a “reasonable person” would not question the judge’s impartiality toward the defendant simply because a government witness was represented by an attorney who previously represented the judge in a prior unrelated matter.

The Sixth Circuit further stated that to the extent the defendant was claiming that his due process rights were violated, he failed to make out a violation.  The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that most matters involving judicial disqualification do not reach a constitutional level.  Due process requires recusal where a judge has a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest in the case and where, as an objective matter, the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge is too high to be “constitutionally tolerable.”  Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 129 S. Ct. 2252, 2259 (2009) (PDF) (quotation omitted).  The Sixth Circuit agreed that no such showing had been made on the record.

Although judicial recusal motions often involve a fact-specific analysis, the Prince decision clarifies that a judge in the Sixth Circuit is not required to recuse himself or herself simply because the judge has had a prior contact with a party or a witness, provided that the judge does not have a familial, financial, or some other close relationship with the party or witness, and provided that the judge has not received extrajudicial information regarding the case.