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In a rare move, a federal judge in Alabama has recused herself from all trials involving a lead U.S. attorney, alleging that the prosecutor “slandered” her. “The government and its agencies that are represented by the U.S. attorney should not be forced to try cases before a judge who has been slandered by the U.S. attorney,” Judge Inge Johnson wrote in the recent order, which involves Alice H. Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, in Birmingham. The judge said all cases would be reassigned until a “decent cooling off period has passed.” The judge’s order was prompted by a motion to recuse her filed by the prosecution in the retrial of U.S. v. Jordan, No. CR-00-J-0213-S. In the Jordan case, prosecutors charge that former Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Woodward illegally used federal and state crime databases to contest his Nov. 3, 1998, election loss to then-Democratic challenger Mike Hale by a 37-vote margin. Woodward is accused of running criminal checks on thousands of absentee voters and then trying to cover up the checks with a voter fraud investigation. The Alabama Supreme Court ultimately determined that Woodward won the election by six votes and installed him in office in 1999. In 2000, Johnson threw out the case for prosecutorial misconduct, ruling in favor of the defense, which argued that Michael Rasmussen, Martin’s predecessor as the northern district U.S. attorney, had withheld discoverable evidence. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Johnson and sent the case back for retrial. On April 13, the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has taken over the prosecution, filed a motion requesting that Johnson step aside and let another judge hear Jordan. “Judge Johnson harbors strong opinions, unmoved by law or facts, which could well influence further decisions in this case,” the motion stated. It included an affidavit by Martin, who stated that Johnson had “severely criticized” Rasmussen in a conversation with Martin and said that she would never believe anything that came out of his mouth. “I think it’s appropriate that [the judge] recused herself,” said Martin, who took office in September 2001. “But why she felt the need to go further with her order is for her to comment on.” Johnson declined to comment. The judge’s action is very rare, according to Sherrilyn A. Ifill, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, who has written on judicial impartiality. The judge’s order raises questions about how passions could elevate to such a boiling point. “For a judge to engage in a blanket recusal of cases that might be brought by this government official is a very unusual step,” said Ifill. But the judge appears to be on the right track by recusing herself, Ifill added, since the impression of impartiality, even if not factual, can be a reason for a judge to step aside. Bias not suggested In reversing the judge, the 11th Circuit’s opinion does not suggest that she was biased against the prosecution or should recuse herself from the retrial. The judge may have been irked then by an inflammatory recusal motion from the U.S. attorney’s office, Ifill said. “We hear that this judge is very angry,”said Ifill, referring to the judge’s order and her use of the term “slander.” Johnson’s action gravely affects fellow judges who now have to pick up her caseload, said Ifill. “This is a crisis for that bench.” The judge may not be talking, but the area bar is buzzing. Many support the judge, asserting that she is tough but fair. Jim Hunt, a solo practitioner in Tuscumbia, Ala., claimed that federal prosecutors too often get a “free pass” in court, but Johnson plays it fair. Hunt said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the judge had made those comments stated in Martin’s affidavit, but that is because they are probably true, he added. “If that is the first time [Martin] has heard Judge Johnson criticize a lawyer, then she hasn’t been around,” Hunt said. “[The judge] has criticized me. She has criticized most lawyers I know, and it hasn’t been unfounded.” McAree’s e-mail is [email protected].

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