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Appellate court orders hearing on judge's impartiality

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that a Monroe Circuit judge abused her discretion in denying a motion to recuse in a small claims case that involved an attorney who previously served as the judge’s election campaign committee chair.

In Bloomington Magazine, Inc. v. Mark Kiang d/b/a Mikado Restaurant, Sunbeam Corp., and Truffles 56 Degrees Incorporated, No. 53A05-1012-SC-790, the appellate court reversed and remanded a case involving a payment dispute between Bloomington Magazine and two advertisers, Mark Kiang and Truffles 56 Degrees. Judge Valeri Haughton in January 2010 ruled against the magazine and in favor of Kiang. The magazine’s attorneys appealed after the judge denied a motion to correct error.

While that appeal was pending, the magazine filed a motion to set aside the trial court judgment pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(2), (3), and (8) on grounds that it had discovered Kiang’s attorney, Geoffrey M. Grodner, served as chair of the judge’s campaign committee in 2008. The attorney and judge didn’t disclose that information.

The Court of Appeals looked to the Indiana trial rules governing recusals and judicial canon 2.11, which states a judge must disqualify himself or herself in any proceedings in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. The rule also states that a judge should disclose on the record any information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge doesn’t believe there is a basis for disqualification.

The Indiana court panel cited a Florida appellate decision in Neiman-Marcus Grp., Inc. v. Robinson, 829 So.2d 967, 968 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2002), that made the proximity of time in which an attorney serves on a judicial campaign committee to the current litigation matter the relevant inquiry in determining whether a trial judge should grant a motion to disqualify himself or herself.

The appellate judges found that Haughton and Grodner’s relationship wasn’t so remote in time as to dispel the appearance of impropriety, particularly since the attorney filed an appearance within three months of the 2008 election and the recusal motion was within two years of the election, once the opposing counsel learned of the relationship.

Remanding the case, the appellate court wrote that the parties can introduce evidence at the hearing regarding the requirements of the Indiana Trial Rules, including whether evidence of the professional relationship between Haughton and Grodner satisfies the rule requirements on evidence being newly discovered and not something that could have been found earlier.
 

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