Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Integrity in Columbus

This court has a responsibility to preserve the integrity of the criminal justice system, which includes a duty to ensure that all defendants have received a fair trial from an impartial judge.
State v. Dean, Supreme Court of Ohio, Oct. 26, 2010.
It's the sort of thing courts say all the time in their opinions.  Then they explain how the system worked just fine in this case, thank you.  Which makes the opinion in Dean especially worth reading.
Here's the short version.
Dean was facing a capital trial.  The state wanted to hold back from discovery address and contact information on two of its witnesses claiming that their lives had been threatened.  Under the discovery rules as they existed at the time (2006), and a 1988 decision of the Ohio Supreme Court interpreting them, the defense was entitled to a hearing on that under a judge other than the one who would preside at trial.  The defense asked for the hearing, but nobody - not the defense, not the prosecutor, not the judge - remembered to get another judge to do the hearing.
Later, though, the defense remembered and asked the judge to recuse himself.  He refused.  They asked to have him removed.  Denied.  And then he threatened the lawyers with contempt.  But he wouldn't decide until after the trial.  
      They asked for a ruling so they could focus on the trial and not fear the judge.
      They asked to get off the case.  We can't do the job properly.
      No.  Suck it up.  I'll deal with the sword over your head later.  Just because I said that you were dishonest and scamming the system doesn't mean I don't think you're honest and wouldn't scam the system.  Suck it up.  I'll deal with you later.
      Dean asked to have them removed.  You made it impossible for them to represent me properly.  Let me represent myself.
      No.  I didn't make them the wretches that they are.  I'm not responsible for the fact that you can't get a fair trial with those guys.  And if you think I am, then you aren't entitled to represent yourself.
And then the abusive trial rulings.  And the death sentence.
The judge found the lawyers in contempt.  The court of appeals reversed, no contempt.
And the appeal to the Ohio Supremes.
Here's the law.
A trial before a biased judge - biased against a party or against the lawyers - is unfair and requires reversal.
And here's the Ohio Supreme Court's explanation of how that works.
The trial court’s accusatory and threatening comments toward counsel were made during judicial rulings and other matters during trial. Normally, such remarks would not establish judicial bias.
See, the thing about biased judges is that it's almost impossible to show they exist because, well, there's that principle explained in Mark Gardner's case.
Ohio judges aren't biased.  And no reasonable lawyer would believe they are which is how you know they aren't.  Even when they are.  Evidence doesn't count.
Except, it seems, when it does.  As it did here.  For a unanimous court.
And Dean gets a new trial.  As he should.
Because it's all about the integrity of the criminal justice system.  At least, it is today.

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