Judicial recusal is appropriate when there is a reasonable basis to question a judge's impartiality. Defendants in criminal cases have a right to an unbiased, impartial judge. In the recent case of Brennan v. State, M2012-00187-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn.Crim.App. 12-4-2012), a defendant who had pled guilty to incest and attempted rape of a child, and received a total effective sentence of twenty years in prison, later discovered that the sentencing Judge's son was in the same Boy Scout Troop with the Defendant. The Defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief seeking a new sentencing hearing and recusal of the same judge from hearing the post-conviction claim.
The Defendant's original plea agreement left determination of the manner of service of the Defendant's sentence up to the trial court at a sentencing proceeding. Defense counsel at the sentencing hearing presented evidence of the Defendant's success as an Eagle Scout and as Boy Scout Troop leader. Citing, among other things, the seriousness of the offense and the conclusion that the Defendant was unlikely to be rehabilitated, the trial court ordered sentence to be served in confinement.
At the post-conviction hearing, the Defendant's trial counsel testified he had not been aware that the Judge's son had been involved with the Boy Scouts or had been in the same troop with the Defendant. The Judge, who also elected not to recuse himself for purposes of the post-conviction hearing, acknowledged that his son was in the same Boy Scout Troop with the Defendant and that his wife had met the Defendant at least once. However the Judge noted that his sentencing decision was based on psychological information provided about the Defendant, the seriousness of the Defendant's offenses, the need for deterrence, and the Defendant's lack of appreciation for the consequences of his conduct. The Defendant's involvement with the Boy Scouts was not a factor that weighed against him at sentencing.
On direct appeal of the denial of post-conviction relief, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that under the circumstances of the Defendant's case, there was nothing to suggest that the sentencing Judge based his decision on any personal knowledge of the case or was biased due to the Defendant's involvement with the Boy Scouts. Denial of post-conviction relief was affirmed.
For more information on questions of judicial recusal, contact Hindman & Associates.