California Supreme Court Rejects De Novo Review of Recusal Determinations

In two cases with a local angle – both originating in neighboring Santa Barbara County and thus reaching the Supreme Court through our local Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Six) – the Supreme Court reaffirms that recusal motion determinations are reviewed only for abuse of discretion.  It rejects the justifications offered by the Court of appeal for heightened review in cases of “first impression,” capital cases, or the reviewing court’s “independent interest” in “policing conflicts of interest and addressing potential errors at the earliest opportunity”

In Haraguchi v. Superior Court (People), case no. S148207 (May 12, 2008), the Santa Barbara County deputy district attorney assigned to prosecute the accused rapist of an intoxicated victim published a novel (Intoxicating Agent) just a few months prior to the start of the trial, the heroine of which was – surprise! – a Santa Barbara County deputy district attorney prosecuting an accused rapist of an intoxicated victim.   In Hollywood v. Superior Court (People), case no. S147954 (May 12, 2008), the Santa Barbara deputy district attorney, while defendant Jesse James Hollywood (pictured) was still a fugitive, cooperated with some filmmakers making the movie Alpha Dog, about the kidnapping and murder being prosecuted in the case, by providing documents and serving as a consultant on the film.  He did so (according to him) “in the hope that the publicity would result in Hollywood’s apprehension.”

In each case, the defendant moved pursuant to Penal Code section 1424 to recuse not just the assigned deputy DA, but the entire Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office.  In each case, the trial court denied the motion on the ground that no conflict warranting recusal was present. In each case, the Court of Appeal reversed, and in doing so invoked “independent review” of the ruling instead of the usual review for abuse of discretion.  And finally, in each case, the Supreme Court reverses the Court of Appeal and reaffirms that recusal motion determinations are reviewed only for abuse of discretion.

In Haraguchi, the Court of Appeal justified departing from the normal standard of review on the ground that the “novel circumstances” of the case made it one of first impression and because the court had an independent interest in policing conflicts of interest and correcting errors at the earliest possible stage of the proceedings,  In Hollywood, the court offered the additional justification that the death penalty potential of the case justified heightened review.  The Supreme Court makes quick work of all three proffered rationale.

It rejects the “first impression” justification because it “offers no clear boundaries”:

With respect to this case being a matter of first impression, we note that virtually every case is, to a greater or lesser degree, a matter of first impression.  The difference between each new set of facts and those that previously have been ruled upon may be small and immaterial or large and momentous.  Where on the continuum a new set of facts lies is to some extent in the eye of the beholder; a court of a mind to reverse may always point to those elements of a case that it views as distinguishing and on that basis assert the issue is a matter of first impression.

It rejects the “independent interest” rationale because the interest is not furthered by independent review:

The Court of Appeal’s concerns do not, however, support a change in the standard of review.  The assertion that pretrial review should be de novo rests on the unspoken assumption that independent review will reduce the rate of error — that appellate courts given a free hand to weigh the evidence and disregard trial court findings will reverse erroneous rulings and eliminate error more often than they reverse correct rulings and thereby introduce error.  That assumption is unfounded.  We review rulings on motions to recuse only for abuse of discretion precisely because trial courts are in a better position than appellate courts to assess witness credibility, make findings of fact, and evaluate the consequences of a potential conflict in light of the entirety of a case, a case they inevitably will be more familiar with than the appellate courts that may subsequently encounter the case in the context of a few briefs, a few minutes of oral argument, and a cold and often limited record.

In Hollywood, it rejects the notion that the potential for the death penalty justifies departure from the “abuse of discretion” standard of review, because that rationale likewise rests on an unfounded proposition that de novo review will reduce the frequency of error:

The punishment at issue in capital cases makes it all the more important to ensure fairness and arrive at accurate outcomes.  But nothing in the Court of Appeal’s proposed de novo standard of review promotes those twin goals.  For recusal motions in noncapital cases, we give trial courts primacy in fact finding and in assessing whether and how great a conflict exists not because the stakes are less and errors more conscionable, but because our trial courts are genuinely in the best position “to assess witness credibility, make findings of fact, and evaluate the consequences of a potential conflict in light of the entirety of a case, a case they inevitably will be more familiar with than the appellate courts that may subsequently encounter the case in the context of a few briefs, a few minutes of oral argument, and a cold and often limited record.” (Haraguchi v. Superior Court, supra, __ Cal.4th at p. ___ [at p. 7].)  Nothing about these circumstances suggests to us that de novo review of recusal motions in capital cases would increase either the accuracy or the fairness of these proceedings.  The same point answers the Court of Appeal’s concern about reducing the likelihood of belated reversal later on in the lengthy capital appeal process; we have no basis on which to conclude independent review would reduce the risk of error.  We therefore conclude that in capital cases, as in all others, the trial courts’ rulings should be reviewed only for an abuse of discretion.

Applying the abuse of discretion standard of review, the Supreme Court finds that neither trial court erred in finding the absence of a conflict requiring recusal.

UPDATE (5/13/08): I’m guessing I’m the only guy geeky enough to focus on the standard of review employed in these high-profile cases.  For less geeky coverage, see these reports from the AP, WSJ.com Law Blog, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times,