Seventh Circuit Rejects Demand for Recusal in Milwaukee Strip-Search Cases

Seventh Circuit Rejects Demand for Recusal in Milwaukee Strip-Search Cases

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently denied the City of Milwaukee’s attempt to force the removal of the judge presiding over several unconstitutional police strip-search cases on the basis of several allegedly improper statements.

The City of Milwaukee contended that U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller refused to recuse himself, so the city applied to the Seventh Circuit for a writ of mandamus to force the judge off the cases. The Seventh Circuit resoundingly denied that request.

The first supposedly improper statement was made by the judge in a finding in which he reduced punitive damages awarded against the city from $500,000 to $54,000. In a footnote, in which he quoted Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn’s own words, Judge Stadtmueller noted that the city appeared to be encouraging illegal stops. The city argued that this statement brought the judge’s impartiality into question.

The court made mincemeat of this argument, noting that the stops in question could be fairly described as illegal. Much more important, however, was the context in which Judge Stadtmueller made this statement: in an order in which he reduced a punitive damages award against the city by nearly 90 percent. The court would be forgiven for wondering why the city wanted this judge recused at all.

The second statement was a factual notation by Judge Stadtmueller that a particular police officer was “MPD’s primary strip-search offender” who “is now serving a prison sentence as a result of his criminal actions.” The city argued that this showed bias against the officer, who only entered a no-contest plea.

Not so, said the court. A conviction is a conviction, and Judge Stadtmueller’s accurate statement about this convicted police officer did not demonstrate bias.

Judge Stadtmueller’s third challenged statement was a reference to the city defending unconscionable conduct. The city misread that statement as the judge calling the defense of the case unconscionable. The court clearly understood what the judge said, as would anyone with a basic understanding of English grammar. Moreover, the court noted that “unconscionable” was a fair description of the police conduct at issue.

The fourth allegedly improper statement was a warning from the judge that he would sanction “non-starter” arguments. The city called this “deep-seated antagonism.” The court called it effective case management by a busy trial judge.

The final statement was a reference by the judge to “systemic problems” that gave rise to the lawsuits. The city complained that this statement showed “a bias so deep-seated that the judge does not appear to recognize that he has apparently already reached conclusions regarding issues central to these cases; namely whether the city has had, and continues to have, unlawful municipal policies or customs.”

The court disagreed here as well, noting that it would not be surprising for a judge presiding over a number of similar cases to “draw conclusions about the nature of the issue or problem.”

In denying the city’s request for a writ of mandamus, the court concluded that “[n]othing we have seen, even considering all the challenged statements together, reasonably suggests … antagonism.”

See: In re: City of Milwaukee, 788 F.3d 717 (7th Cir. 2015).

Originally published in Criminal Legal News on December 27, 2017.