Appeals court disqualifies Judge Brian Iten from criminal cases

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Iten, a former local prosecutor and appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, was ousted by voters in the first contested judicial election in a decade for the circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. He is being replaced on the bench by criminal defense attorney Maria Ruhl, who won by a 14-point margin.

Appeals court disqualifies Judge Brian Iten from criminal cases

SARASOTA — Judges with Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal ordered outgoing 12th Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten to disqualify himself from at least two criminal cases, saying that a prudent person could fear they would not receive a fair hearing before him.

More so-called “writs of recusal” are expected to be issued by the court to defendants and their local defense attorneys in coming days.

Iten, a former local prosecutor and appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, was ousted by voters in the first contested judicial election in a decade for the circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. He is being replaced on the bench by criminal defense attorney Maria Ruhl, who won by a 14-point margin.

During his campaign, Iten touted a parade of endorsements from state attorneys, county sheriffs and police chiefs.

In court, defense attorneys argued this created a reasonable fear that he would favor the prosecution in criminal cases, and they filed motions seeking his recusal from their cases.

Iten denied all motions to disqualify himself in July and August. But Tuesday, the appeals court — of which the 12th Circuit is a part — granted writs disqualifying Iten from hearing some of those cases.

Quoting a previous decision made by another court of appeal, the Second District wrote, ”‘The standards for disqualification do not turn on a demonstration of actual bias or partiality on the part of the judge ... Rather, disqualification is required where the facts alleged and established, which must be taken as true, would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not receiving a fair and impartial proceeding.’ Accordingly, a successor judge shall be immediately appointed.”

A three-judge panel reached its ruling in a 2–1 decision and granted writs for at least two of attorney Colleen Glenn’s clients.

News of their decision rebounded through Sarasota’s legal community on Tuesday.

Twelfth Circuit Chief Judge Charles Williams had publicly supported Iten’s denials to disqualify himself. In August, Williams told the Herald-Tribune, “There is no legal reason or prohibition that would prevent Judge Iten from continuing to serve in the criminal division ... The fact that Judge Iten has broad support for his re-election from the law enforcement community is not improper or disqualifying.”

Neither Iten nor Williams could be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Public Defender Larry Eger, whose office had filed similar motions to disqualify Iten, said his attorneys would continue to inform their clients of Iten’s relationship with prosecutors and law enforcement, allowing them to decide for themselves whether they were comfortable with Iten presiding over their cases.

Making defendants feel that they are getting a fair trial “is the objective,” Eger said.

“If there’s the perception of impropriety or bias, then the client feels that he is not getting a fair trial,” the public defender said. “That’s not to say that Judge Iten would be unfair — it’s just about how the defendant perceives the playing field.”

Separation of powers and impartiality are key to a well-functioning legal system that is fair and provides due process of law, said Mae Quinn, a visiting professor of law at the University of Florida who specializes in legal ethics.

Quinn said the Second District’s ruling on Tuesday was unusual.

“Writs are generally considered extraordinary forms of relief in the legal system,” Mae told the Herald-Tribune in an email. “They are not granted lightly. So, the writ here should be seen as a pretty powerful statement on the part of the Second District Court of Appeals that suggests at least an appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest that undermines the integrity of the proceedings.”

Although she did not criticize Iten personally, Ruhl ran on a platform arguing that too many judges are being appointed by the governor rather than elected by the people.

When a judge decides to retire early rather than complete a term, a local Judicial Nominating Commission reviews applicants for the vacancy and makes recommendations to the governor. If the appointee is never challenged, he or she does not need to seek voters’ approval.

In October 2015, Scott chose Iten to replace former judge Peter A. Dubensky.

 

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