Florida Judge’s Impartiality Questioned after Endorsements

An appeals court announced that it would bar Florida judge Brian Iten from presiding over four criminal trials. The announcement was made as reports came out that Iten had received endorsements from county sheriffs, chiefs of police, state attorneys, and others on the prosecutorial side of the criminal justice system.

It’s difficult to tell what exactly happened behind the scenes in this case. It is generally not surprising that a former prosecutor who was appointed a judgeship by a governor would be endorsed by law enforcement officials acting in various branches of the government. But for defense attorneys, there was an implicit question of fairness and bias that laced each of Iten’s decisions. Defense attorneys successfully argued that Iten, given endorsements of various law enforcement officials, could not be trusted to judge fairly in criminal cases. The appellate court agreed and forced Iten to recuse himself from at least four lawsuits. These lawsuits have been remanded to Judge Frederick Mercurio.

Recusals Will be Determined on a Case-by-Case Basis

It appears that the appeals court is going to give defendants and their attorneys say over whether or not a case will be heard by Iten. Iten himself has been voted out by the local electorate and will be replaced by former defense attorney Maria Ruhl who defeated Iten by a 14 margin.

The chief judge of the 12th Circuit District of Florida, Charles E. Williams, publicly supported Iten’s right to hear criminal cases. In a later statement, he attempted to mitigate the damage done by the announcement saying that a prominent defense attorney in the region merely reserves the right to ask his clients whether or not they would prefer to have their case heard by another judge. This will apparently involve asking criminal defendants if they want their case to be heard by a guy who accepted political endorsements on behalf of the same individuals who are trying to lock them up.

Is this making sense? Probably not. What happened was simple though. In political terms, the state wanted to avoid the appearance of bias against defendants in criminal cases without overtly sanctioning one of their judges. In legal terms, defendants are guaranteed a fair trial by jury and if a reasonable person can surmise judicial bias in a court case, then they should have the opportunity to have their case heard by another judge.

Questions over Iten’s favoritism arose after Facebook photos showed him attending a retirement party for a local prosecutor. The defense attorney filed a motion for Iten to recuse himself from the case after a former state’s attorney bragged about Iten attending his party. Iten vehemently denied wrongdoing, but as a defendant in a criminal case, the appearance of favoritism is something that needs to be addressed. It is unlikely that Iten will preside over any more criminal cases.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

The Skier Law Firm P.A. has successfully defended clients in a number of different kinds of criminal cases. This includes everything from first-degree cases to routine DUIs. If you’ve been charged with a crime, give us a call or contact us online and we can discuss your options today.

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