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Minnesota: Removal Not Required where Judge's Spouse is Employed by Prosecutor's Office

In September 2011, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that cause for removal of a judge presiding over a case does not exist solely because the judge's spouse is employed by the office of the prosecutor.

William Jacobs, charged with two counts of sexual misconduct in Hennepin County, peremptorily removed the first judge assigned to his case. Thereafter, pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.03, subd. 14(5), he sought to remove for cause the Honorable Daniel C. Moreno, the judge to whom his case was reassigned. He did so on the basis that Judge Moreno's wife was employed as an assistant county attorney in the county that was prosecuting his case.

Jacobs' motion was denied by the trial court and then by the court of appeals. On review, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed, holding that, under Minn. Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.11(A), a spouse's position as an assistant county attorney in the public office that is prosecuting the case does not by itself create an appearance of partiality requiring that a judge disqualify himself or herself from the proceeding.

In reviewing the case law, the Court found that the appropriate standard for determining whether a judge must be disqualified due to an appearance of partiality is "whether a reasonable examiner, with full knowledge of the facts and circumstances, would question the judge's impartiality." It concluded, under this objective standard, that Judge Moreno's impartiality was not subject to question simply because his spouse was an attorney with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted that: (1) the Hennepin County Attorney's Office is a large organization that handles a high volume and wide variety of cases; (2) Judge Moreno's wife worked in the civil, rather than criminal, division of the Office; and (3) she had no personal involvement with Jacobs' case and no financial (or reputational) interest in its outcome. See: In re Jacobs, 802 N.W.2d 748 (Minn. 2011)

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Related legal case

In re Jacobs