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.