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What Does It Mean to Recuse a Judge?


The defense team for Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz have asked for Judge Elizabeth Scherer to be discharged from the case. This is called recusal. So, what does it mean when a judge recuses themselves or the plaintiff files a motion to recuse?

Parkland, FL

Nikolas Cruz is on trial for the murder 17 students and staff and injuring 17 others in 2018. Police arrested Cruz after discovering that he fled the scene on foot and investigated claims that he displayed a pattern of troubled behavior. Investigators also used surveillance footage depicting Cruz and evidence including witness testimony and his automatic rifle.

After several years, Cruz’s trial has finally begun, and his defense team is raising alarms about the impartiality of the judge and jury. The defense team has pointed out that considering recent shootings in Texas, it seems impossible for jurors to issue an impartial verdict for a school shooter case. Additionally, they have filed a formal motion to dismiss Judge Scherer from the case.

Their motion includes accusations that Judge Scherer acted unethically by proposing to ask potential jurors their views on the death penalty while one of the defense attorneys was absent. Defense attorney Melisa McNeill says that the judge’s push to ask jurors about their personal views should wait until Secor, the other defense attorney, returned form quarantine because she has death penalty case experience. The state has agreed with the decision, but the judge fired back by suggesting that the defense team sacrificed their integrity.

In other words, the defense team filed a motion for the state to recuse Judge Scherer. So, what does it mean to recuse a judge? Keep reading to find out.

Recuse Definition

A judge may recuse themselves when they do not take part in deciding a case they are assigned to or would otherwise help with the decision. The recusal process is a part of the due process clauses of the United States Constitution which state that judges must recuse themselves if they have a financial interest in the cases outcome, or there is a strong possibility that the judge is biased.

It does not matter if the judge is actually biased but if there is a high probability that bias could play a significant role in the judge’s decision, any party in a lawsuit or criminal case may file a motion to recuse the judge.

Judge Recusal in Florida

In Florida, a judge who appears biased or to have a personal stake in a case may be recused. Biases do not have to be proven – the implication of bias is enough to recuse a judge. It is also important to note that personal involvement can take many forms.

If a judge posts or otherwise communicates confidential details on social media or in correspondence, they are abusing their power and jeopardizing the case. Financial interests may also disqualify a judge from a case. For example, if a judge is presiding over a case involving an oil company and a class action suit alleging malfeasance that resulted in harm to a coastal community near the oil rig. If the judge owns stock in the company, they have a personal stake in the company’s continued success – the stock prices stay up and the judge reap the benefits. In this case, the judge would be disqualified due to their inability to approach the case with impartiality.

Judges who maintain a 401(k)-retirement plan with their former legal firm and preside over cases involving representatives from the firm may also face disqualification. Conflicts of interest, cases involving attorneys that represented the judge in previous cases, and contributions to organizations with interests in specific case outcomes are acting unethically and may recuse.

Once a judge recuses themselves, another judge must step in and preside over the case. If they refuse to recuse themselves, they can submit a motion to the district judge who will hold a hearing to determine whether the judge can continue to preside over the case or if another judge should be assigned.

In the Parkland case, Judge Scherer exhibited potential bias against the school shooter by asking jurors their feelings on mass shootings. In doing so, the defense team has the right to file a motion to recuse which could lead to Scherer’s removal from the case.

Recusal and Representation

Recusal is not a first resort. It is a check given to the court to keep judges from acting unethically or basing their decision on bias. If the judge assigned to a case is found to have financial or personal interests, a motion to recuse could be filed against them.

Filing a request for removal is complicated and can only be done by an experienced attorney. Attorneys are familiar with the ethical standards judges are required to follow and can pursue recusal if necessary. The Hoffman Firm has extensive experience with complex criminal cases and Attorney Evan Hoffman’s experience as a state prosecutor turned defense attorney gives him a unique perspective on the justice system.

When you need a fierce defender and compassionate advocate, contact The Hoffman Firm.

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