There’s an old joke about the difference between good lawyers and great lawyers. It says that good lawyers know the law, but great lawyers know the judge. While this is more or less a joke, sometimes it is difficult to remember that judges are regular people in the community as well as the person who holds your legal fate in their hands.
Sometimes, if a judge knows someone too well, they’ll be asked to “recuse” themselves, or step down from hearing a case. A judge may also be asked to recuse himself if he is biased in some way towards one of the parties.
A woman in Lauderdale County recently felt that a judge hearing her divorce case blurred the lines of judicial propriety when he took a phone call from a school official where the woman’s child attended classes.
Judge Self, the judge in this case, issued a protection from abuse order to the wife in April. In May, an agreement between the parties was reached and the judge vacated the protection from abuse order, telling the parties to just not contact each other.
A few days after the agreement was reached, Judge Self got a call from the superintendent of the school system inquiring about the protection from abuse order. The Judge and the superintendent also discussed how the wife had been communicating with other teachers and school officials about her divorce. The next day, the Judge met with the wife and the husband and informed them of the phone call.
After the phone call incident, a few things happened with the wife’s case she felt impacted her case negatively. First, the Judge entered an order granting her joint custody of the children. Next, Judge Self granted an order granting the school superintendent’s motion to quash subpoenas the wife had served on her. After these incidents, the wife felt Judge Self’s opinion of her had been compromised by the superintendent’s phone call so she requested Judge Self recuse himself from her case.
At the hearing regarding Judge Self recusing himself, the wife’s attorney testified that Judge Self had made comments questioning whether the wife was mentally stable. Judge Self also indicated that he thought the subpoenas to the superintendent were “ridiculous,” but that he based his opinion of the wife solely off his encounters with her and not through anything the superintendent discussed with him. Therefore, he denied the motion to recuse himself. The wife essentially appealed this decision.
Divorce is extremely stressful and it is easy to feel like there’s no one on your side. However, a judge ruling against you does not necessarily mean they dislike or have a prejudice against you. In order for a judge to recuse themselves, they must have a conversation with someone about the case outside of the presence of all the parties involved in the matter.
That conversation must in some way prejudice the judge’s opinion of one of the parties. If a reasonable person can show through the judge’s conversation with another person biased their opinion, that is a basis for recusal.
In this case, Judge Self did speak with someone who was a nonparty to the case who discussed issues of the dispute with him. However, he promptly notified all parties about the conversation occurring and the content of the conversation. Judge Self’s opinion of the wife was not altered by his phone conversation with the superintendent. Therefore, the wife did not present enough evidence to warrant Judge Self recusing himself.
The best way to protect yourself during a divorce proceeding is to make sure you have an attorney that’s experienced in all areas family law.
Joseph A. Ingram has handled divorce and family disputes all across the state of Alabama and can help you with your case. If you are seeking a divorce, contact Alabama Divorce Lawyer Joseph A. Ingram at (205) 656-0044.