Livingston v. State, 59846

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Citation441 So.2d 1083
Docket NumberNo. 59846,59846
PartiesConnie Moore LIVINGSTON, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
Decision Date27 October 1983

Melanie Ann Hines, Asst. Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, for appellant.

Jim Smith, Atty. Gen., and Raymond L. Marky, Asst. Atty. Gen., Tallahassee, for appellee.


The appellant, Connie Moore Livingston, appeals his conviction of first-degree murder and the imposition of the death sentence. We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. We conclude that under the special circumstances of this case the trial judge should have disqualified himself from presiding in appellant's trial and, consequently, we must reverse appellant's conviction and sentence and remand this case for a new trial. It should be understood that the trial judge's action in denying the motion for disqualification was influenced by a decision of this Court which rejected a request by the same attorney who now represents appellant to disqualify the same judge in all cases in which the attorney served as counsel or was a party. As we have explained in this opinion, that prior action does not control this case. To aid in appellant's retrial, we have addressed the question submitted concerning the use of a prior criminal offense to establish identity and find that this evidence is admissible in the retrial.

The appellant, who is retarded, was charged with a brutal first-degree murder and sexual battery. The appellant's mother retained Charles A. Wade to represent her son. Prior to his arraignment, appellant filed a motion, verified by him, for the disqualification of Judge Erwin Fleet. In this motion, which was filed under section 38.10, Florida Statutes (1979), appellant set forth specific conflicts between his attorney and the trial judge, concluding that "Judge Fleet is so biased and prejudiced and has so much animosity against his counsel, Charles A. Wade, that he, Connie Livingston, would be unable to get a fair and impartial trial in this case ...."

Wade filed a supporting affidavit which described several incidents establishing this alleged animosity between himself and Judge Fleet. As alleged, these incidents, which occurred over a period of twenty-five years, were: (1) that in 1958, Fleet, who had been appointed to a circuit judgeship in 1957, was defeated by Wade in an election for that position; (2) that during Wade's service as a circuit judge, Fleet appeared before him as a lawyer and angry words exchanged between them, resulting in Fleet's threat to petition for Wade's disqualification in future cases; (3) that after Fleet was elected to another circuit judgeship and Wade, who was still a circuit judge, became the administrative judge for the county, there were numerous crossings between the judges; (4) that after Wade retired from his circuit judge position and began his private law practice he was held in contempt of court by Judge Fleet in Wade's first contested hearing before him; and (5) that Judge Fleet had directed a grand jury to investigate a criminal matter involving Wade which had been nol-prossed by the state attorney and had appointed as grand jury foreman a man whom Fleet had unsuccessfully represented before Wade when he was a circuit judge. This latter incident concerning the grand jury investigation occurred in 1979, approximately five months prior to the commencement of appellant's trial, and, as indicated in the record in this case, received local newspaper publicity.

The appellant's motion for disqualification also contained two affidavits from individuals who stated that they were not related to the parties or the attorneys and that to the best of their knowledge it would be virtually impossible for Wade or any of his clients to get a fair and impartial hearing before Judge Fleet. On April 16, 1980, Judge Fleet denied the motion for disqualification, finding that the motion and accompanying affidavits were legally insufficient under the requirements of section 38.10, Florida Statutes (1979). Wade renewed the motion for disqualification twice during subsequent pre-trial hearings and again at the commencement of the trial. Each renewal was denied. The denial of the motion was also used as a ground for a motion for new trial, which was also denied.

First, we address the previous action in which Wade sought to disqualify Judge Fleet in all cases. In December, 1979, Wade filed a suggestion for writ of prohibition in the Supreme Court of Florida, seeking to have Fleet disqualified from hearing any case or matter involving Wade either as an individual or as an attorney. This Court, without opinion, denied the suggestion for the writ on February 14, 1980, approximately two months before the commencement of appellant's trial. See Wade v. Fleet, 383 So.2d 1204 (Fla.1980).

The state contends that this Court's denial of the writ without opinion is controlling in this case. We realize that the allegations made by the appellant in his motion for disqualification in this case are basically the same as those made by Wade in his previously denied petition for writ of prohibition. It is important to note, however, that the relief sought by Wade in his prior petition was a general prohibition against Judge Fleet's hearing any of Wade's cases. That petition was not by a litigant seeking disqualification of the judge in any particular case, as appellant's motion does in the instant case.

This Court has clearly held that a lawyer's request for a general disqualification of a judge will not be granted. In Ginsberg v. Holt, 86 So.2d 650, 651-52 (Fla.1956), we said that

[t]here is no provision in the statutes or the decisions for a blanket decree restraining a particular judge from hearing all cases in which a particular attorney may appear in his professional capacity as an officer of the court and we unreservedly decline to introduce such a novel and revolutionary procedure.

(Emphasis added.) Because our denial of the writ of prohibition in Wade v. Fleet was not accompanied by an opinion, we recognize that Judge Fleet, as well as the prosecution, could have construed the denial to mean that the allegations in the affidavit were insufficient to require the disqualification of Judge Fleet in any particular case arising in the future. Our prior decision in Wade v. Fleet, however, is not controlling and appellant's motion for disqualification must be considered on the basis of whether, under the circumstances, he has a reasonable fear that he would not receive a fair trial in this case.

This Court has recognized the sensitivity and seriousness involved whenever the issue of judicial prejudice is raised. We have stated that:

Prejudice of a judge is a delicate question to raise but when raised as a bar to the trial of a cause, if predicated on grounds with a modicum of reason, the judge against whom raised, should be prompt to recuse himself. No judge under any circumstances is warranted in sitting in the trial of a cause whose neutrality is shadowed or even questioned.


... It is a matter of no concern what judge presides in a particular cause, but it is a matter of grave concern that justice be administered with dispatch, without fear or favor or the suspicion of such attributes. The outstanding big factor in every lawsuit is the truth of the controversy. Judges, counsel, and rules of procedure are secondary factors designed by the law as instrumentalities to work out and arrive at the truth of the controversy.

The judiciary cannot be too circumspect, neither should it be reluctant to retire from a cause under circumstances that would shake the confidence of litigants in a fair and impartial adjudication of the issues raised.

Dickenson v. Parks, 104 Fla. 577, 582-84, 140 So. 459, 462 (1932). This Court has also expressed the view that:

"Every litigant, including the State in criminal cases, is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge." It is the duty of courts to scrupulously guard this right of the litigant and to refrain from attempting to exercise jurisdiction in any matter where his qualification to do so is seriously brought in question. The exercise of any other policy tends to discredit and place the judiciary in a compromising attitude which is bad for the administration of justice.

State ex rel. Mickle v. Rowe, 100 Fla. 1382, 1385, 131 So. 331, 332 (1930).

In Florida, there are four separate expressions concerning the disqualification of trial judges, which are set forth in: (1) The Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 3-C; (2) section 38.10, Florida Statutes (1981); (3) Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.230, which was adopted verbatim by this Court from a former statute, section 911.01, Florida Statutes (1967); and (4) Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.432.

The Code of Judicial Conduct sets forth basic principles of how judges should conduct themselves in carrying out their judicial duties. Canon 3-C(1) states that "[a] judge should disqualify himself in a proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned ...." This is totally consistent with the case law of this Court, which holds that a party seeking to disqualify a judge need only show "a well grounded fear that he will not receive a fair trial at the hands of the judge. It is not a question of how the judge feels; it is a question of what feeling resides in the affiant's mind and the basis for such feeling." State ex rel. Brown v. Dewell, 131 Fla. 566, 573, 179 So. 695, 697-98 (1938). See also Hayslip v. Douglas, 400 So.2d 553 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981). The question of disqualification focuses on those matters from which a litigant may reasonably question a judge's impartiality rather than the judge's perception of his ability to act fairly and impartially.

When a party believes he cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial before the assigned trial judge, he must present the issue of...

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