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September 3, 2009

"Federal Judge Refuses To Take New Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the headline of this NPR piece about a notable federal district judge's decision to reshape his docket.  Here are the basics from the piece:

A federal judge in Milwaukee has taken the unusual step of refusing to accept new criminal cases and recusing himself from existing ones, in a move observers say is about politics, impropriety and, possibly, hurt feelings.  Federal Court Clerk Jon Sanfilippo says the way he sees it, the reason Judge J.P. Stadtmueller is refusing criminal cases "really springs from one case."

Sanfilippo, the only person at the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee who was willing to talk about the situation, says it all started after a ruling in July by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Prosecutors thought Stadtmueller showed bias in a gun case and took the rare move of asking the appeals court to remove him, which it did. Stadtmueller accused the U.S. attorney's office of judge-shopping.

The judge declined repeated requests for interviews; neither his colleagues on the federal bench nor the interim U.S. attorney for Milwaukee would comment.

Sanfilippo says since that ruling, Stadtmueller stopped taking new criminal cases from the government and recused himself from 22 existing ones.  He is still taking civil cases, however.  "He believes that he's acting appropriately under the circumstances, trying to provide a situation where there's no problem in terms of perception," Sanfilippo says, "and as this has been unfolding, he's been very adamant about making sure he has a full caseload."

My sense is that there is a lot to this (little?) story, and a lot of backstory to the story.  Rather than comment or speculate about the particulars, perhaps I should just encourage dialogue on the general question of whether and when it seems appropriate for an active federal judge to refuse to hear certain types or all types of criminal cases.

September 3, 2009 at 02:15 PM | Permalink


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Recusal cases repeatedly emphasize that a judge has a DUTY to not recuse himself if there is not a compelling reason to. I can't imagine that Stadtmueller has any compelling reason to stop taking all criminal cases. He's throwing a two-year-old tantrum.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Sep 3, 2009 2:42:40 PM

Is this grounds for impeachment? What if he stops taking both civil and criminal and only takes habeas?

Posted by: . | Sep 3, 2009 2:52:51 PM

res ipsa. What is the legal definition of compelling reason. If the appeals court wont back you up, is that compelling? I'm not sure one instance is but if the appeals court consistently doesn't like his work in one area of law, maybe the justice system is better off without him hearing that type of case.

I reserve judgment as to whether this is a temper tantrum or not.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 3, 2009 3:08:30 PM

Is the judge on senior status, I wonder? If so, he can take whatever kinds of cases he wants. I clerked for a senior federal district court judge who only took criminal cases. (He thought civil cases were boring.)

Posted by: lawyer | Sep 3, 2009 3:31:16 PM

According to Coke's Institutes (as quoted by Prakash & Smith, 2006), good behavior ends upon abuse, nonuse and refusal to exercise an office. On the other hand, Judge Stadtmueller is taking up the slack with civil cases, so it is arguable that this does not constitue nonuse or refusal.

Is the work of the court is being so disrupted that it is affecting the proper management of the court's workload? I think if this cannot be resolved with a gentle discussion among the court's judges, then it may be a matter for the circuit's judicial council under its power to " ... make all necessary and appropriate orders for the effective and expeditious administration of justice within its circuit." 28 USC 332 (d) (1)

Judicial council orders are binding per 28 USC 332 (d) (2):

"All judicial officers and employees of the circuit shall promptly carry into effect all orders of the judicial council. In the case of failure to comply with an order made under this subsection ... a judicial council ... may institute a contempt proceeding in any district court in which the judicial officer or employee of the circuit who fails to comply with the order ... shall be ordered to show cause before the court why he or she should not be held in contempt of court."

Posted by: Ed Unneland | Sep 3, 2009 4:02:26 PM

I have advocated personal involvement of the adverse lawyers in any case. Judges are the enemies of innocent defendants by allowing their being put on trial. So no quarter is to be shown them. This view assumes a professional attitude and judicial temperament. Just as the innocent defendant is being put through a wringer so should all the cult criminals. As they make life unbearable for the innocent defendant, so should they never experience a moment free of uncertainty. The judge knows who is obviously innocent. He allows the trial to assure his pals on the defense and plaintiff sides a good living. This corrupt motive should exclude any human consideration.

1) People should demand total e-discoveries on the enemies of the innocent defendant, including the judge, including social network sites back to kindergarten.

2) All current affiliations, financial interests, campaign contributors need to be parsed.

3) Every inappropriate utterance is to be reported to the Judicial Review Board, one at a time, once a month, pretty much into the foreseeable future. Under no circumstances is the innocent defendant to be alone living in uncertainty.

The innocent defendant may need to hire a lawyer malpractice lawyer to terrorize the defense lawyer. The latter wants no deterrence of improper conduct, because the biased judge and the wrongheaded prosecutor have given him his job.

Given the apparent lack of judicial temperament, and sense of fair play in this judge, he should be fired or impeached. If neither is possible, assign him to a desk in the basement boiler room, where they pile up the garbage for removal by the trash truck, until he decides to stop acting up.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 3, 2009 4:46:22 PM

"whether and when it seems appropriate for an active federal judge to refuse to hear certain types or all types of criminal cases"

How about never? His duty is to remain unbiased in all situations. His actions can now be construed to mean that: a) he feels that he can't remain neutral in criminal cases; b) an adverse ruling from the 7th Cir. will send him into a tailspin, thus causing him to be less independent in all his rulings; c) any party who appears before him and has a case sent back on appeal should be afraid he will act irrationally in response; and/or, d) any time the government is a party in a case before him, they will either have an unfair advantage because he fears their wrath or he will treat them with disdain as payback for this.

Any way you slice it, there will always be an argument in any case before this judge, whether civil or criminal, that this act will give the appearance of partiality to a disinterested observer, which is the standard for recusal.

Posted by: nyc lawyer | Sep 3, 2009 6:03:16 PM

I understand that the judge maintains a full caseload as he always has. He simply is offsetting criminal cases with an increased number of civil cases.

Because the Seventh Circuit decision rested not on actual bias, but on an appearance of bias, the judge is in a bind not of his creation. The persons in the United States Attorney's office who made the recusal arguments remain there. The appearance of bias that the Seventh Circuit and the United States Attorney's office imagined then also remains. In time, likely that reason to recuse will end. At that point, no doubt the recusals will end, too. There has been no temper tantrum, at least from the judge.

To the contrary, agree with him or disagree, this judge always has called balls and strikes exactly as he sees them. He is a good judge and a good man who has been subjected to second-guessing that he does not deserve. Relatedly, the lights ordinarily are on in his chambers long after they have been turned off in the United States Attorney's office and in most of the other offices in the federal courthouse.

Posted by: Dean Strang | Sep 3, 2009 7:10:37 PM

Each district court has discretion over the internal distribution of court cases among judges on the court. If the Court wished, it presumably could divide _all_ of its civil and criminal cases; designating some of the district judges as "criminal-only" judges and the others as "civil-only." Indeed, many senior judges are operate in just such a fashion, usually in keeping with their own personal preferences/interests. So long as the court condones it, it seems perfectly permissible for this judge to only take civil cases.

However, if the judge's recusal signifies his assessment that he can no longer be fair and impartial due to his disagreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, that raises questions about his judicial temperament in general. A judge who in his own assessment allows his personal views to color his legal judgment in one category of case might very well allow his personal views to intrude in other cases. In that event, merely restricting his docket to civil cases would not solve the problem of bias--it would mean that civil litigants have more of a chance to have a biased judge.

Posted by: rstacy | Sep 3, 2009 8:43:28 PM

"His duty is to remain unbiased in all situations." I disagree. He's only human. His duty is to protect the integrity of justice by not presiding over cases where he cannot be an impartial adjudicator. If he has a personal grudge against the US Attorneys appearing before him in criminal matters, although unusual, it might actually reveal how important 'courtroom integrity' is to this particular judge.

In N.C., I see judge's act on matters that they shouldn't on a daily basis...so I find this news somewhat refreshing.

If he's merely throwing a tempter tantrum and pouting, however, well then it probably time for him to step down. I doubt this is the case.

Post-Conviction Atty

Posted by: Anon | Sep 3, 2009 11:39:49 PM

According to the 7th Circuit opinion Judge Stadtmueller was out of line in the case he was recused from. The judge's belief that not every small-time felon in possession case belongs in federal court (I agree with that) is not the law. There is no legal bar to the feds prosecuting every felon in possession case under 18 USC 921(g). Whom to prosecute is an executive branch decision.

N.C. defense attorney

Posted by: Bryan Gates | Sep 4, 2009 11:48:39 AM

Personally, I think the "federalization of street crime" is unconstitutional. Police powers were reserved by the People to the States, and SCOTUS has never said, nor do I think they will, that the commerce clause provides Congress with the power to regulate felons, and/or guns for that matter.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 4, 2009 5:46:06 PM

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