Liteky v. United States

Decision Date07 March 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-6921.,92-6921.
Citation510 U.S. 540
PartiesLITEKY et al. <I>v.</I> UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Before and during petitioners' 1991 trial on federal criminal charges, the District Judge denied defense motions that he recuse himself pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 455(a), which requires a federal judge to "disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The first motion was based on rulings and statements this same judge made, which allegedly displayed impatience, disregard, and animosity toward the defense, during and after petitioner Bourgeois' 1983 bench trial on similar charges. The second motion was founded on the judge's admonishment of Bourgeois' counsel and co-defendants in front of the jury at the 1991 trial. In affirming petitioners' convictions, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Judge that matters arising from judicial proceedings are not a proper basis for recusal.

Held: Required recusal under § 455(a) is subject to the limitation that has come to be known as the "extrajudicial source" doctrine. Pp. 543-556.

(a) The doctrine—see United States v. Grinnell Corp., 384 U. S. 563, 583—applies to § 455(a). It was developed under § 144, which requires disqualification for "personal bias or prejudice." That phrase is repeated as a recusal ground in § 455(b)(1), and § 455(a), addressing disqualification for appearance of partiality, also covers "bias or prejudice." The absence of the word "personal" in § 455(a) does not preclude the doctrine's application, since the textual basis for the doctrine is the pejorative connotation of the words "bias or prejudice," which indicate a judicial predisposition that is wrongful or inappropriate. Similarly, because the term "partiality" refers only to such favoritism as is, for some reason, wrongful or inappropriate, § 455(a)'s requirement of recusal whenever there exists a genuine question concerning a judge's impartiality does not preclude the doctrine's application. A contrary finding would cause the statute, in a significant sense, to contradict itself, since (petitioners acknowledge) § 455(b)(1) embodies the doctrine, and § 455(a) duplicates § 455(b)'s protection with regard to "bias and prejudice." Pp. 543-553.

(b) However, it is better to speak of the existence of an "extrajudicial source" factor, than of a doctrine, because the presence of such a source does not necessarily establish bias, and its absence does not necessarily preclude bias. The consequences of that factor are twofold for purposes of this case. First, judicial rulings alone almost never constitute valid basis for a bias or partiality recusal motion. See Grinnell, supra, at 583. Apart from surrounding comments or accompanying opinion, they cannot possibly show reliance on an extrajudicial source; and, absent such reliance, they require recusal only when they evidence such deep-seated favoritism or antagonism as would make fair judgment impossible. Second, opinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring during current or prior proceedings are not grounds for a recusal motion unless they display a similar degree of favoritism or antagonism. Pp. 554-556.

(c) Application of the foregoing principles to the facts of this case demonstrates that none of the grounds petitioners assert required disqualification. They all consist of judicial rulings, routine trial administration efforts, and ordinary admonishments (whether or not legally supportable) to counsel and to witnesses. All occurred in the course of judicial proceedings, and neither (1) relied upon knowledge acquired outside such proceedings nor (2) displayed deep-seated and unequivocal antagonism that would render fair judgment impossible. P. 556.

973 F. 2d 910, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 557.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Peter Thompson, by appointment of the Court, 509 U. S. 920, argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners.

Thomas G. Hungar argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 455(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code requires a federal judge to "disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." This case presents the question whether required recusal under this provision is subject to the limitation that has come to be known as the "extrajudicial source" doctrine.

I

In the 1991 trial at issue here, petitioners were charged with willful destruction of property of the United States in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 1361. The indictment alleged that they had committed acts of vandalism, including the spilling of human blood on walls and various objects, at the Fort Benning Military Reservation. Before trial petitioners moved to disqualify the District Judge pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 455(a). The motion relied on events that had occurred during and immediately after an earlier trial, involving petitioner Bourgeois, before the same District Judge.

In the 1983 bench trial, Bourgeois, a Catholic priest of the Maryknoll order, had been tried and convicted of various misdemeanors committed during a protest action, also on the federal enclave of Fort Benning. Petitioners claimed that recusal was required in the present case because the judge had displayed "impatience, disregard for the defense and animosity" toward Bourgeois, Bourgeois' codefendants, and their beliefs. The alleged evidence of that included the following words and acts by the judge: stating at the outset of the trial that its purpose was to try a criminal case and not to provide a political forum; observing after Bourgeois' opening statement (which described the purpose of his protest) that the statement ought to have been directed toward the anticipated evidentiary showing; limiting defense counsel's cross-examination; questioning witnesses; periodically cautioning defense counsel to confine his questions to issues material to trial; similarly admonishing witnesses to keep answers responsive to actual questions directed to material issues; admonishing Bourgeois that closing argument was not a time for "making a speech" in a "political forum"; and giving Bourgeois what petitioners considered to be an excessive sentence. The final asserted ground for disqualification— and the one that counsel for petitioners described at oral argument as the most serious—was the judge's interruption of the closing argument of one of Bourgeois' codefendants instructing him to cease the introduction of new facts, and to restrict himself to discussion of evidence already presented.

The District Judge denied petitioners' disqualification motion, stating that matters arising from judicial proceedings were not a proper basis for recusal. At the outset of the trial, Bourgeois' counsel informed the judge that he intended to focus his defense on the political motivation for petitioners' actions, which was to protest United States Government involvement in El Salvador. The judge said that he would allow petitioners to state their political purposes in opening argument and to testify about them as well, but that he would not allow long speeches or discussions concerning Government policy. When, in the course of opening argument, Bourgeois' counsel began to explain the circumstances surrounding certain events in El Salvador, the prosecutor objected, and the judge stated that he would not allow discussion about events in El Salvador. He then instructed defense counsel to limit his remarks to what he expected the evidence to show. At the close of the prosecution's case, Bourgeois renewed his disqualification motion, adding as grounds for it the District Judge's "admonishing [him] in front of the jury" regarding the opening statement, and the District Judge's unspecified "admonishing [of] others," in particular Bourgeois' two pro se codefendants. The motion was again denied. Petitioners were convicted of the offense charged.

Petitioners appealed, claiming that the District Judge violated 28 U. S. C. § 455(a) in refusing to recuse himself. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the convictions, agreeing with the District Court that "matters arising out of the course of judicial proceedings are not a proper basis for recusal." 973 F. 2d 910 (1992). We granted certiorari. 508 U. S. 939 (1993).

II

Required judicial recusal for bias did not exist in England at the time of Blackstone. 3 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *361. Since 1792, federal statutes have compelled district judges to recuse themselves when they have an interest in the suit, or have been counsel to a party. See Act of May 8, 1792, ch. 36, § 11,1 Stat. 278. In 1821, the basis of recusal was expanded to include all judicial relationship or connection with a party that would in the judge's opinion make it improper to sit. Act of Mar. 3, 1821, ch. 51, 3 Stat. 643. Not until 1911, however, was a provision enacted requiring district-judge recusal for bias in general. In its current form, codified at 28 U. S. C. § 144, that provision reads as follows:

"Whenever a party to any proceeding in a district court makes and files a timely and sufficient affidavit that the judge before whom the matter is pending has a personal bias or prejudice either against him or in favor of any adverse party, such judge shall proceed no further therein, but another judge shall be assigned to hear such proceeding.

"The affidavit shall state the facts and the reasons for the belief that bias or prejudice exists, and shall be...

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