United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Tallahassee Division
ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR DISQUALIFICATION
E. Walker United States District Judge
Copperfield is a world-renowned magician. He has traveled the
globe levitating over live audiences, cutting his body in
half, making the Statue of Liberty vanish,
“erasing” his assistant's limbs, and even
walking through-not over-the Great Wall of China. Many leave
his performances believing that magic is, in fact, real. But
at the end of the day, he is only an illusionist and his
tricks are nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Defendants also aspire to be magicians. Their grand finale?
Attempting to make a new judge appear in my place out of thin
air. Unfortunately for them, law isn't magic; there must
be a legal basis for my recusal. And, like David
Copperfield's tricks, their motion is nothing but smoke
Defendant's Motion for Disqualification, ECF No. 65, is
both factually and legally untenable, it is DENIED.
background is helpful. I had the pleasure of clerking for
three different judges after I graduated from law school:
Judge Emmett Ripley Cox of the United States Court of Appeals
for the Eleventh Circuit, Justice Stephen H. Grimes of the
Florida Supreme Court, and my now-colleague Judge Robert L.
Hinkle of the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Florida. After my second clerkship ended, I
accepted an offer to join Cummings, Lawrence & Vezina,
P.A. as an associate in mid-1996. Around that same time,
then-attorney Hinkle was nominated by President Clinton to
serve on the federal bench, and less than two months later he
received his commission. I then accepted an offer to clerk for
Judge Hinkle as his first law clerk, which required me to
leave Cummings, Lawrence & Vezina after a couple short
months. I never again worked for Cummings, Lawrence &
Vezina or any “related” firm;namely, as
relevant here, Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli, P.A.
my three clerkships, I had the unique experience of seeing
first-hand how the judges that I clerked for ran their
chambers. And I strive to run my chambers how they ran their
chambers. They were, and are, good judges, and I aspire to be
the same. Although each judge had their own
idiosyncrasies-and I certainly have my own-many conducted the
day-to-day tasks, including the administrative duties, in a
similar fashion. Attorneys could contact the
courthouse-either a judicial assistant in chambers or a
courtroom deputy in the clerk's office-to inquire
regarding scheduling or other administrative issues. That
was, and still is, entirely unremarkable. See Code of
Conduct for United States Judges Canon 3(A)(4)(b)
(permitting certain “ex parte communication for
scheduling, administrative, or emergency purposes” if
those communications don't “address substantive
matters and the judge reasonably believes that no party will
gain a procedural, substantive, or tactical advantage as a
result of the ex parte communication”).
clerkships sparked judicial ambitions of my own, and I
eventually decided to run for Florida Circuit Judge in the
2008 General Election. After I announced my intent to run in
late 2006, campaign contributions started flowing in. I
amassed $113, 915.74 in campaign contributions. ECF No. 65-4,
at 4. Approximately sixty-eight different law firms and 126
individual attorneys contributed to my campaign. See
ECF No. 65-4. One of those contributions was from W. Robert
“Rob” Vezina, III, who contributed $100 in
January of 2007. Id. at 1. My hard-fought campaign
(read: unopposed) was successful, and I took the bench on
January 6, 2009. Three years later, President Obama nominated
me to serve as a judge on this Court. The senate eventually
confirmed my nomination, and I have been an active federal
district judge since December 7, 2012.
docket is currently one of the busiest in the country. Half
of this district's seats are vacant and, as a result, I
preside over hundreds and hundreds of cases in three
different cities. My weighted caseload is almost 1, 100 -
considering two active judges are handling the caseload of
four active judge. Because time is at such a premium,
efficiency and diligence become all-important. Thus, as I am
permitted to do so, I allow attorneys to contact my judicial
assistant and my courtroom deputy to raise nonsubstantive
administrative issues. My staff deserves all the credit for
keeping my chambers running as smoothly as it does. Without
them, everything would come to a screeching halt.
in this case attorneys contacted my judicial assistant with
non-substantive administrative issues. The first contact
involved an erroneous order dismissing this case. Counsel in
another matter contacted my courtroom deputy and informed her
that a settlement had been reached, as is required under
Local Rule 16.2. See N.D. Fla. Loc. R. 16.2(A)(1)
(“Each attorney of record must ensure that the Court is
notified immediately when . . . [a] civil case is
settled.”). My courtroom deputy asked for the case
number, but this case's number was accidentally provided.
Thus, thinking that this case had been settled, I entered an
order dismissing the case and directed the Clerk to enter
judgment. ECF No. 32 (dismissal); ECF No. 33 (judgment).
Confused, counsel for Plaintiff-Ms. Megan Reynolds-called my
judicial assistant and told her that the dismissal must have
been entered in error, as the parties had not settled the
case. My judicial assistant indicated that the order may have
been intended for another case and that she would make sure
this issue was addressed expeditiously. Immediately after
that call, Ms. Reynolds contacted Defendants' counsel to
explain the error and her communication with chambers. ECF
No. 65-1, at 1. An order withdrawing the dismissal was posted
later that day. ECF No. 34.
second contact involved scheduling issues surrounding a
discovery matter. On March 10, 2017, non-party Amerisure
Insurance Company moved to quash a subpoena issued by
Plaintiff, ECF No. 53, and a hearing to address that motion
was set for March 14, 2017, ECF No. 54. As she had done
before, Ms. Reynolds contacted my judicial assistant to ask
whether the parties could appear telephonically. My judicial
assistant informed her that the parties needed to appear
in-person. After some thought, I changed my mind when I
learned the lawyers were from out of town and directed my
judicial assistant to email Ms. Reynolds and let her know
that the hearing was being converted from an in-person
hearing to a telephonic one. ECF No. 65-2, at 6.
Plaintiff's counsel then forwarded that email to counsel
for Defendant and Amerisure, ECF No. 65-2, at 5, and a notice
converting the hearing was posted shortly thereafter. ECF No.
filed a motion to disqualify me from this case given my brief
tenure at Cummings, Lawrence & Vezina, Mr. Vezina's
contribution from ten years ago, and Ms. Reynolds's ex
parte communications with my judicial assistant. ECF No. 65.
They argue that my “impartiality might reasonably be
questioned” and that “an objective,
disinterested, lay observer fully informed of the facts . . .
would entertain a significant doubt about [my]
impartiality.” Id. at 4.
to disqualify are one of the thornier issues that judges
face. They must therefore be handled delicately. Indeed, the
issues raised by motions to disqualify are acutely unique.
The run-of-the-mill motion, for example, does not require the
judge to engage in self-analysis of their own possible
biases. But with motions to disqualify, the judge is judging
himself. That requires self-awareness, modesty, and personal
judge harbors doubt “concerning whether his [or her]
disqualification is required he [or she] should resolve the
doubt in favor of disqualification.” Parker v.
Connors Steel Co., 855 F.2d 1510, 1524 (11th Cir. 1988)
(citations omitted). Disqualification, however, “cannot
be based on ‘unsupported, irrational, or highly tenuous
speculation.'” United States v. Cerceda,
188 F.3d 1291, 1293 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting In re
United States, 666 F.2d 690, 694 (1st Cir. 1981)).
Rather, it “must be supported by some factual basis . .
. .” Id. The judge must also remain vigilant
to “the need to prevent parties from too easily
obtaining the disqualification of a judge, thereby