It’s not uncommon to see pro se litigants butt heads with trial judges. It’s less common to see attorneys doing so. Knowing that they will likely appear before the same judge in the future, most lawyers take great pains to put aside personal grievances in the interest of protecting their clients, current and future.
One Tampa lawyer seems to have gotten under the skin of 13th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Tracy Sheehan. And not just any lawyer, but the supervising chief of the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender’s Office for that Circuit. For her part, Judge Sheehan presides over the Juvenile Division of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court.
She went so far as to recuse herself from all cases in which the defendant is represented by an assistant public defender under the lawyer’s supervision. So the presiding judge of the Juvenile Division essentially disqualified herself from hearing any case in which a juvenile is represented by the Public Defender’s office–which is true in most juvenile cases. Can she do that?
She can. In its decision in Holt v. Sheehan (filed October 11, 2013), the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida had no problem in principle with Judge Sheehan recusing herself from this broad swath of cases, even though it meant that either the chief judge would need to assign a different judge to handle juvenile cases, or the Public Defender would need to assign a different attorney to supervise the assistant public defenders who handle such cases.
In fact, the court noted, it is not uncommon for a judge to recuse herself from all cases in which a particular attorney is involved. That typically occurs in a different type of situation, however, such as where judicial ethics require a judge to recuse herself from all cases in which her parent, child, spouse, or other close relative represents one of the parties.
But the Second District did not approve of the manner in which Judge Sheehan executed her decision to recuse. The judge should have coordinated with the Chief Judge and Public Defender, according to the court. And she should not have filed a “blanket disqualification order” in a particular case, instead handling the issue through internal court procedures.
Most troubling to the court of appeal, though, was the contents of the judge’s order, in which she publicly disparaged the attorney, call her
incompetent, untrustworthy and extremely dilatory in matters related to her legal duties, based upon Attorney X’s actions and inactions in this Division over the past month and based upon Attorney X’s ten year tenure at the Courthouse which has developed her widespread reputation as an inept supervisor and mean spirited individual who publically berates her underlings as “stupid” and “idiotic.”
No doubt the lawyer in question was not pleased to see these comments memorialized in the public record.
And the 2nd DCA was not happy about the judge’s departure from the measured tones in which judges usually express themselves from the bench. Indeed, the 2nd DCA judges commented that they had “never seen an order comparable to this one filed in a specific court file.” They suggested that Judge Sheehan’s decision “has the flavor of one made in a moment of frustration and exhaustion” and that she re-evaluate it after additional deliberation.
The bottom line for judges is this: They can recuse themselves from all cases in which a particular attorney is involved, and they should do so if they believe their ability to be impartial could be reasonably questioned. But no matter how strong a judge’s feelings may be, blanket recusals are an internal matter of court procedure, and publicly airing personal feelings and opinions should be avoided.
For lawyers, the bottom line remains the same: Don’t butt heads with the judges who preside over your clients’ cases. The Second District stepped in this time, but there’s no guarantee that they will jump in to save your reputation.