11th Circuit Won't Recuse From Murder Case of One of Their Own

By William Peacock, Esq. on January 10, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

More than twenty-four years ago, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert S. Vance was tragically murdered by a bomb mailed to his house.

His murderer, Walter Leroy Moody, is currently sitting on Alabama's death row and is seeking habeas relief in federal courts. At the time of his original prosecution, the Eleventh Circuit found it necessary to recuse themselves, as well as the local district court judges, from the federal case. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist assigned the case to a Minnesota district court, and when the appeal reached the Eleventh Circuit, a panel of judges from the Fourth Circuit sat by designation.

The question is: twenty-four years later, do the same recusal rules apply?

Moody: The Attack Targeted 11th Cir as an 'Institution'

Moody argued, in his petition for a writ of mandamus, that recusal was required, both at the district court level and the Eleventh Circuit level, where the writ was decided.

Why? His attack was directed on the Eleventh Circuit as an institution, rather than at individual judges. He even mailed a bomb to the Eleventh Circuit directly, in addition to the bombs sent to Judge Vance and a second victim, civil rights attorney Robert Harrison. (The Circuit had drawn his ire by previously upholding his other convictions for bomb-related activity.)

Plus, there is actually precedent for this: the Seventh Circuit, in a similar case involving plans to target their federal courthouse with explosives, sua sponte recused their own Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as the entire Northern District of Illinois.

11th Cir: No Recusal Required for Tenuous Connection

Recusal is mandatory whenever a judge has "any ... interest that could substantially be affected by the outcome of the proceeding." It's a vague statute, but judges are to err on the side of recusal.

The panel that handed down today's decision included the only three judges which had no connection, whatsoever, to the case, other than serving on the same court, more than two decades later. All of the judges then serving on the court were covered by the existing recusal order or have recused themselves due to their prior role as prosecutors in the case. That leaves:

  • Judge Charles R. Wilson (Joined the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999, Clerk on then-Fifth Circuit in 1980 before the murder.)
  • Judge Beverly B. Martin (2010)
  • Judge Adalberto Jordan (2012, Clerk on Eleventh Circuit in 1987-1988 before the murder.)

On an individual basis, none of the three Eleventh Circuit judges, nor District Court Judge L. Scott Coogler, had a close personal relationship to the late Judge Vance, nor did they serve on the recused courts at the time of the murder. Any direct reasons for recusal are tenuous, to put it generously.

What about the institutional argument? While the Seventh Circuit may have recused itself because of a plot aimed at their own courthouse, the Ninth Circuit elaborated upon and distinguished the Nettles opinion when three Central District of California judges were targeted with threats of violence. In refusing to mandate recusal of other Central District of California judges, the Ninth emphasized that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judges worked in the targeted building at the time of the attack and could have been seen as the intended victims.

Here, as in the Ninth Circuit's Clemens case, the judges that were not recused did not work in the targeted building at the time of the attack. In fact, they joined 10, 21 and 23 years after Judge Vance's death.

"The only fact distinguishing this panel from a randomly-assigned panel comprised of judges from another circuit is that we happen to be assigned to the Eleventh Circuit, on which Judge Vance sat at the time of his death in 1989. We conclude that under the unique facts of this case such a tenuous connection would not, standing alone, raise significant doubt in the mind of an informed, objective, and disinterested lay observer about our ability to fairly decide cases involving Mr. Moody."

That only leaves one unasked, and unanswered question: who hears the hypothetical en banc rehearing, since every other Eleventh Circuit judge has been recused?

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