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A month of bickering between Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr. and Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Dwight L. Thomas has ended — with more bickering. Thomas demanded last month that Arrington — who had berated Thomas in court — recuse himself from presiding over a death penalty case in which Thomas wanted to represent the defendant. Arrington initially referred the recusal question to another judge, but on Oct. 10 he issued an order granting Thomas’ request. But Arrington didn’t go quietly. Arrington suggested that Thomas was treading dangerously close to soliciting business and implied the defendant lacked the capacity to evaluate the qualifications of potential death penalty lawyers. “[T]o follow the path Mr. Thomas advocates,” Arrington wrote, “tempts lawyers to violate the letter and the spirit of Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct 7.3 as regards personal contact with unrepresented parties for the purpose of soliciting business.” CRITICISM CALLED ‘PETTY’ Thomas took the unusual step of filing a response to Arrington’s order of recusal, saying in an interview that Arrington took a “petty” last shot at him. Thomas wrote that Arrington’s voluntary recusal saved taxpayer money, “but more importantly spared Judge Arrington from further public embarrassment due to documented and credible evidence of unprofessional behavior and conduct not becoming of a Judge.” “Recusal is warranted when the Judge personally attacks a lawyer in an unprofessional, foul-mouthed, vindictive manner, amounting to character assassination,” he wrote. With Arrington’s recusal, the case against Kenneth G. Reese — accused of murdering Fulton County police officer Aaron J. Blount — returns to the Fulton clerk’s office for random reassignment. When a new judge has the case, Thomas will petition a third time to be appointed Reese’s counsel. PROBLEMS WITH BEDFORD The first time Thomas sought court appointment to the Reese case, he ran into problems with Judge T. Jackson Bedford. Bedford appointed Thomas’ co-counsel Thomas M. West, but he denied Thomas’ petition. Bedford said in a prepared statement that his decision was “prompted by what I believed to be unfounded and unprofessional derogatory comments that he made about me in the Daily Report several years ago.” Bedford said he was afraid Thomas’ attitude might affect his conduct in his courtroom. But Bedford was taken off the case, and he added that the judge who would ultimately try it would have an option to appoint Thomas as he saw fit. That judge, it turned out, was Arrington, who had problems with another Dwight Thomas letter. According to Thomas, his trouble with Arrington began when the defense lawyer requested a leave of absence after a marathon death penalty trial in DeKalb County. Arrington granted the request, but, according to Thomas, the judge told him that if he couldn’t handle the demands of being a lawyer, he should take a job with the Board of Education. Thomas took offense, and replied in a letter, telling the judge that he expected Arrington to treat him with “professional courtesy.” ARRINGTON’S TURN Then it was Arrington’s turn to be offended. During an in camera conference, he told Thomas he had been kidding in court, and that Thomas’s letter was “chickens–.”" When West and Thomas again petitioned for Thomas to be appointed to Reese’s case, Arrington told the lawyers during a conference that not only was Arrington annoyed by Thomas’ earlier letter, but he was also upset that Thomas had discussed the matter with U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper before sending the letter. Arrington denied a motion for hearing on the matter. In motions filed last month, Thomas demanded that Arrington recuse himself. Shortly after that. Arrington yielded the issue to his colleague on the Superior Court bench, Philip F. Etheridge. Etheridge had scheduled a hearing on the matter for Monday morning, but after Arrington’s recusal Friday, the hearing was canceled, and the case put back on the clerk’s wheel for reassignment to a new judge. In his recusal order, Arrington wrote that he is certain he could have handled the case. But since the recusal issue might resurface, he added, it was best to handle it early. Allowing defendants to select their own appointed counsel denies the trial judge the right to evaluate the lawyer’s qualifications, Arrington wrote. “An accused facing the prospect of death is at least as vulnerable as someone with a personal injury claim or family members with a wrongful death claim,” Arrington wrote. “The accused recognizes the need for a lawyer, but may not be in a position to carefully evaluate credentials, in much the same way that a drowning man will grab the first lifeline thrown his way, without examining the quality of the rope.” Thomas replied, “There’s no doubt that Arrington and I have become adversarial.” The lawyer has two other cases scheduled before the judge, and Thomas said he would move for Arrington’s recusal in those, too. State v. Reese, No. 03SC04478 (Fult. Super, Oct. 10, 2003).

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