Recusal bill is good for courts

Published 10:08 am Tuesday, April 8, 2014

By CAM WARD / Guest Columnist

Judges should be held to a standard that does not allow for undue influence on their decisions. Alabama passed a law in the mid-1990s that created a standard for judges to recuse themselves from cases where there was undue financial influence.

This recusal statute, though enacted in 1995, was never pre-cleared with the U.S. Department of Justice and was therefore never implemented.

The inherent administrative problems associated with implementing the previous statute, would be enormous and costly both to the judiciary and litigants since in every case, the parties and their lawyers would be required to file certificates of campaign contribution disclosure.

Recognizing the problems with the current law, the legislative Task Force on Campaign Finance recommended a bill which Rep. Mike Ball and I sponsored that repeals the current law including the massive amount of paperwork required but retains a means to recuse judges based in part on their receipt of large campaign contributions.

HB 543, which I sponsored in the Senate and Rep. Mike Ball sponsored in the House, was tailored after the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent ruling concerning the circumstances under which the size of a campaign contribution might trigger the recusal of a judge.

With our new on-line reporting of contributions to judges that is searchable by judge or justice and by donor and litigants we have much easier system of determining conflicts of interests. Attorneys have ready access to contributions that might cause them to seek a judge or justice to recuse.

Under the new law recusal of a judge would be handled as follows:

Rather than requiring a cumbersome process of filing certificates of disclosure in every single case regardless of its size, either party, or the judge on his own motion, must trigger the issue of recusal because of campaign contributions by filing a motion asking the judge to recuse. The motion can be filed if a reasonable person would perceive the contribution made by a party to the case, or his or her attorney, would impair the judge’s impartiality or if there is a serious question whether the judge can be objective;

If a party or its attorney has contributed more than certain percentage (10 percent appellate judges/15 percent circuit judges/25 percent district judges) of the total contributions raised when it was reasonably foreseeable the party or attorney knew a case would arise before that judge during the election cycle, then a rebuttable presumption arises that the judge should recuse. The judge can appeal their recusal if they feel circumstances allow for it.

I believe this common sense procedure for Judicial Recusal when a conflict of interest occurs will benefit our entire judicial system. I appreciate the bi-partisan support it received in the House and Senate and look forward to Governor Bentley signing this bill into law.

Cam Ward is a state senator from Alabaster.