Judge Acker rules on motions to recuse himself from Renfroe v. Rigsby, says no

Just caught wind of Judge Acker’s decision tonight regarding motions filed by Dickie Scruggs and by the Rigsby sisters.  They asked Acker to recuse himself from the Renfroe v. Rigsby civil case, in the Northern District of Alabama (along with all other judges in the district), on grounds of the perception of bias stemming from his referral of Scruggs to special prosecutors for alleged criminal contempt of court.  The contempt charge arose out of Scruggs’ failure to return documents the sisters took from Renfroe and State Farm as ordered by Acker’s injunction.  He instead, after talking with Mississippi AG Jim Hood after the injunction was issued, sent them to Hood, even though Hood already had his own copies.

Here is a copy of the opinion, and here is a key excerpt from the end of his opinion:

A litigant cannot himself create a basis for recusal by committing a sanctionable offense and suffering the consequences. A judge cannot allow himself or herself, in fear of a recusal motion, to withhold an appropriate sanction that is commensurate with an offense. Rule 11 and Rule 37, F.R.Civ.P., come to mind. Judges are, of course, human beings, and therefore are not perfect. But, if they are to fulfill their roles as arbiters of disputes in the society that has granted them that responsibility, they cannot constantly walk on eggshells.

One of the sanctions available to a judge in the administration of justice is the sanction of contempt, never a pleasant matter. In twenty-five years on the bench, I have never before found probable cause for the prosecution of a party, or of a lawyer, for criminal contempt. If a finding of such probable cause automatically mandates recusal under § 455(a), this case is as good a vehicle as any for establishing such a bright line recusal rule.

In order to give movants an opportunity to obtain an appellate review of my denial of their motions, I will not rule on other pending motions unless and until movants decline to seek a reversal of my order, or the Eleventh Circuit affirms my order. Meanwhile, by separate order, I will deny the motions.

There you have it.  I would expect Scruggs and the Rigsby sisters to appeal this decision to the Eleventh Circuit, which will probably rule fairly quickly one way or the other, so as not to delay this case any further than necessary.

Despite being 17 pages long, the opinion is a pretty quick read.  Although I imagine the judge had some research help — what’s the use of being a federal judge and having clerks if you don’t get research assistance — it has the tone of being written by Judge Acker himself, in careful, even painstaking fashion.  In the opinion, he comes across as very reasonable, giving Scruggs and the Rigsbys and their attorneys their due, and resting his decision on established and well-respected authorities.  As far as legal writing goes, this opinion is accessible and easy to read, usually uses the simplest words possible, and marches right along from point to point and conclusion to conclusion without dawdling or mugging for the camera, while using language that is direct and even lively at times.  A very well-written piece of work.



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10 Responses to Judge Acker rules on motions to recuse himself from Renfroe v. Rigsby, says no

  1. Charles Rehberg

    I absolutely disagree with Judge Ackers ruling. This judge not only referred Scruggs to the U.S. Atty. to consider for prosecution, he also GUARANTEED Scruggs at that time that he would appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute Scruggs if the U.S. Atty. did not take action. The U.S. Atty. – certainly a qualified prosecutor with no interest in this matter – found no reason to press the charge. So, the judges action in superceding the U.S. Atty. can only be seen as vindictive, and cause one to believe he cannot act in an impartial and fair manner. I also think his action is rather insulting to the local U.S. atty. as well–does he believe she lacks the ability to determine what should be prosecuted? Let’s all hope that the 11th. Circuit exlains what the appearance of impartiality means to Judge Acker.

  2. Justus

    Logical and well-reasoned Opinion by Judge Acker! He really laid out the appropriate “standard and analysis” for appellate review in such a way that should ensure that his Order is not overturned. Judge Acker’s comment regarding “walking on eggshells” also seems to carry an undertone request to the appellate court that they (the courts in general) should send a message to attorneys practicing before them that it is the judges who will run the courts, and not the attorneys.
    DAVID – a question. What other “motions” was Judge Acker referring to that are currently pending before him that will be stayed while Scruggs appeals Judge Acker’s Order denying recusal – do any such pending motions bear great importance at the moment?

  3. Justus, Renfroe and the Rigsbys have cross-motions for summary judgment, Renfroe has moved to strike portions of the Cori Rigsby declaration offered as evidence in support of its summary judgment briefs, and there is a joint motion for extension of deadlines regarding fact witness depositions.
    Summary judgment, for obvious reasons, is an important motion, so yes, there are some pressing matters before the court. If Renfroe wins its summary judgment, which it probably will, it will ask for attorney fees from the other side.

  4. M. Curtiss McKee

    Is Scruggs’s motion to recuse “insulting” to Judge Acker? Does it suggest that Judge Acker is incapable of considering the relevant facts and law presented to him on the merits and rule accordingly?
    I would sooner trust Judge Acker’s juridical integrity than those of the complicit individuals in blatantly ignoring Judge Acker’s order.
    If the US Attorney cannot find illicit conduct in Scruggs’s reaction to Judge Acker’s order, he/she needs to be replaced.
    A sanction is an aid in the administration of justice. Many sanctions have been issued and the case in chief continued to trial. Sanctions are placed in the hands of the judiciary to assure a correct result. The moaning and renting of garments about the “appearance of impartiality” is fully predictable when it stems from the sanction victims and their adherents. “Commit an offense and leverage it into a defense” – a not-so-new mantra.

  5. Curtiss, Acker makes a good point that when sanctions are issued, the judge does not normally step down. When you look up the federal case law on sanctions, which I have had occasion to do when bringing motions for sanctions in federal court, you find cases where judges threatened default, actually defaulted parties, forced a company’s executives to write letters of apology, levied fines for disobeying judicial orders, and so forth. And you could find all that just under annotations for FRCP 16, which pertains to settlement conferences. The annotations under Rule 26 and other rules have many more such instances. If a judge recused himself or herself every time they brought penalties against a party or their agents, the threat of punishment would be even more diminished than it is. As it is, judges are very reluctant to assess penalties — you almost have to try very hard to get punished in any meaningful way.

  6. MSlawyer

    Judge Henry Wingate sanctioned attorney Paul Minor when he took the news media with him to K-Mart in Jackson and tried to empty the cash registers there to satisfy a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs Minor represented in a parking lot liability suit. A few years later, Judge Wingate presided over Paul Minor’s criminal trial. Judge Acker makes a very good point — if sanctioning a lawyer or referring that lawyer for criminal contempt charges is enough to cause recusal, more and more unscrupulous lawyers will resort to contemptible conduct to get rid of judges they don’t like.

  7. Bama Insurance

    David, thanks again for all your commentary on these extraordinary events going on in Mississippi. Can you help some of us non lawyerish readers out? Is there a good legal dictionary website (for us layman) you’d recommend that defines some of the legal terms and words being used such as “movants” and “summary judgements” for us non-lawyers? Thx!

  8. Bama, try http://dictionary.law.com. I notice the word “movant” doesn’t come up in a search there, but most words will. A movant is the party, or sometimes, a non-party who receives permission to intervene in a case, who files a motion asking or “moving” the judge to do something.

  9. m.williams

    Scruggs has an exasperatingly long history of ignoring other State laws. In any instance that is on record. If Scruggs had been caught a few times, and meaningful sanctions returned, he still wouldn’t change. He is a trick, and he has no respect for his profession.
    He avoids the foreign Court Order by obfusgation and using his mangled State Court history to muddle what Court law requires. He never has to squeel like a stuck pig, and, for that reason, he’s Teflon.
    If I understand this, Scruggs simply used subterfuge, which passed the buck to a favorable jurisdiction, and avoided the issue of behavior. He’s not even good at what he obfusgates.
    Once creative, it looks as if he’s about to find that cheating is checkmate. If I have the picture right, I can see there’s more than a fissure along the fault line. Is there a big hole coming up, and a dynamic descent?
    If the Appeal is over-ruled, it goes back where it belongs. Catch him if you can, I guess. Maybe in a few years, the Phoenix will eventually feel some heat. It’s a long shot.

  10. Dixie K. Blankley

    Bama, if you are able to acquire a Black’s Law Dictionary, you will be well set to really get a great deal more out of these lawyerly epistles. I have mine right by my side as I read and spend about as much time “looking up” as I do reading.