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United States v. Woods

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

March 2, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PLAINTIFF
v.
JONATHAN E. WOODS; OREN PARIS III; and RANDELL G. SHELTON, JR. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Currently before the Court are Defendant Jonathan Woods's Motion to Disqualify District Court Judge Timothy L. Brooks from All Proceedings in this Matter (Doc. 265) and the Government's Response (Doc. 268) in opposition. For the reasons given below, Mr. Woods's Motion is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is a criminal case in which the three Defendants, Jonathan Woods, Oren Paris, and Randell Shelton, have been charged with conspiring to bribe Mr. Woods while he was a state senator in the Arkansas General Assembly, in violation of federal law. The docket in this case is far more lengthy and tortured than those of typical criminal cases in this Court; it is presently hovering around 300 entries, and many more will doubtlessly follow. Although there are a variety of reasons why this case is more complex than most, the lion's share of litigation has revolved around a deluge of accusations by the Defendants that the Government, as well as Mr. Woods's former attorney, have all committed various types of misconduct during the investigation and prosecution of this case. That history will be recounted in more fulsome detail in the Order that will be filed immediately following this one. Suffice it to say here that the vast majority of those accusations, in this Court's view, have been meritless, but a couple have not been.

         At any rate, on January 9, 2018, the undersigned Judge became the latest participant in this case to be accused of impropriety, or at least of permitting the appearance thereof, when Mr. Woods filed a Motion to Disqualify, arguing that the undersigned Judge "should recuse himself from this case "pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) and applicable case law." See Doc. 265, ¶ 2. The Government filed its Response in opposition on January 18. That Motion is now ripe for decision. Although typically orders will refer to "the Court" or "this Court, " this particular Order will make extensive use of the first-person, because the relief being sought by the instant Motion pertains to the specific person occupying the bench, rather than to the venue, forum, or court. See, e.g., S.W. Bell Tel. Co. v. F.C.C., 153 F.3d 520 (8th Cir. 1998) (Hansen, J., employing the first-person when explaining why he will not be recusing from a case).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         28 U.S.C. § 455(a) states, in its entirety, that "[a]ny justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." "A party introducing a motion to recuse carries a heavy burden of proof; a judge is presumed to be impartial and the party seeking disqualification bears the substantial burden of proving otherwise." Pope v. Fed. Express Corp., 974 F.2d 982, 985 (8th Cir. 1992). The decision whether to recuse is committed to a district court's "sound discretion, " but "[r]ecusal is required when an average person knowing all the relevant facts of a case might reasonably question a judge's impartiality." Dossett v. First State Bank, 399 F.3d 940, 953 (8th Cir. 2005). Where a judge finds that the facts do not warrant recusal, he has an obligation not to recuse. See S.W. Bell Tel. Co., 153 F.3d at 523.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The arguments in Mr. Woods's Motion to Disqualify appear to fall into three separate categories. One category of arguments pertains to the Order to Show Cause (Doc. 255) that this Court entered on December 19, 2017. The second category of arguments is generally premised on Mr. Woods's perception that I am holding him and/or his codefendants to a different standard than the Government in this case. (For the sake of brevity, this Order will refer below to this second category of arguments as "arguments concerning unfair treatment.") The third category of arguments concerns the relationship between myself and Mr. Woods's former attorney in this matter, W.H. Taylor, who is also my former law partner. Below, I will address each category of arguments, in the sequence just described.

         A. The Order to Show Cause

         As mentioned above, this Court entered an Order to Show Cause on December 19. That Order was directed to Gregory Payne, who is one of the attorneys representing Mr. Paris in this matter. It was issued in response to Mr. Payne having filed materials on the public docket that this Court believed were subject to the Protective Order (Doc. 14) in this case. See generally Doc. 255. Mr. Woods takes exception, see Doc. 265, ¶¶ 17, 30, to the following language that appeared near the end of the Order to Show Cause:

[I]t seems very difficult for the Court to escape the conclusion that Mr. Payne not only violated this Court's Protective Order, but that he intentionally did so, possibly with the assistance of others, in a manner calculated to prevent this Court from implementing any sort of effective remedy for the violation after the fact. The Court believes that further inquiry is necessary in order to determine whether this is in fact the case, and to determine what sanctions, if any, should be imposed as a consequence for these actions.

(Doc. 255, p. 4).

         Mr. Woods's objections to this language appear to be twofold. First, Mr. Woods contends "it would appear to a reasonable person that the Court has formed conclusions and is accusing Counsel and co-defendant's counsel of conspiring to manipulate this Court and being disingenuous." (Doc. 265, ¶ 30). I do not understand what Mr. Woods means by "Counsel and co-defendant's counsel." The Order to Show Cause was directed to Mr. Payne and to nobody else. It was not directed to Mr. Woods's counsel, nor was it even directed to any of Mr. Paris's counsel other than Mr. Payne. Mr. Woods's counsel was neither required nor expected to attend Mr. Payne's show-cause hearing, though his presence was welcome if he wished to observe.

         If the Court had any basis for believing that counsel for Mr. Woods engaged in any wrongdoing with respect to the matters discussed in its Order to Show Cause, then the Court would have said so, it would have provided reasons in support thereof, and it would have ordered counsel for Mr. Woods to show cause along with Mr. Payne. This did not happen, so I do not see why counsel for Mr. Woods feels he has anything to worry about here.

         Mr. Woods's second objection to the above-quoted language in the Order to Show Cause is that "[t]he Court made this determination based solely on the filing of [Mr. Payne's motion] and prior to hearing any facts or arguments on behalf of the parties." See Id. This objection is premised on a fundamental misreading of the Order's plain language. The Order to Show Cause explicitly stated that "further inquiry is necessary in order to determine whether" the Court's suspicions were "in fact the case, " and the Court explicitly left open the possibility that no sanctions would be imposed at all, when it wrote that this further inquiry was necessary "to determine what sanctions, if any, should be imposed." See Doc. 255, p. 4 (emphasis added). The Court expressed concerns about Mr. Payne's actions, and it spent four pages providing the reasons for those concerns, which it will not rehash here. But the Court had not made up its mind about any of these matters. Instead, it gave Mr. Payne notice of its concerns, and it then gave Mr. Payne an opportunity to explain himself and to persuade the Court that his behavior was proper, or at least excusable. On February 15, 2018, Mr. Payne availed himself of that opportunity, conceded that he had made a mistake, and persuaded the Court that sanctions were not warranted.

         In other words, the Order to Show Cause simply had nothing to do with Mr. Woods or his counsel. The person to whom that Order was directed was given notice and an opportunity to be heard before any adverse action would be taken against him. And ultimately, no adverse action at all was taken against him, other than a bare admonishment. Hopefully the foregoing discussion has clarified any misunderstandings Mr. Woods may have previously held regarding the Order to Show Cause. Given a proper understanding of the situation, I cannot imagine what objections Mr. Woods could possibly have to the provision of due process to someone else in a proceeding that is none of his business. But to whatever extent such objections remain, they plainly are not a proper basis for recusal.

         B. Arguments Concerning Unfair Treatment

         Turning now to Mr. Woods's arguments concerning unfair treatment-these arguments seem to fall into two subcategories. First, and more generally, Mr. Woods contends that throughout this case I have been "tak[ing] the government at its word" while demanding proof from the Defendants, see Doc. 265, ¶¶ 26, 28, 29, and holding the Defendants "to a different standard than the government, " see Id. at ¶ 27. Second, and more specifically, Mr. Woods objects to certain statements, observations, or findings that were made from the bench during oral argument on Mr. Woods's Second Motion to Continue Trial (Doc. 155) at the November 30, 2017 Pretrial Conference. See Id. at ¶¶ 13-14, 29. Below, I will deal first with the more general set of arguments about holding the parties to different standards. Then I will take up the more specific arguments concerning my remarks from the bench on November 30, 2017.

         1. Allegation of Holding Different Parties to Different Standards

         I will begin with an illustrative and typical example: Mr. Woods writes that "[w]hen arguing for a continuance, the Court took the government at its word that the discovery provided was 'not relevant' with little inquiry at all, while at the same time requiring defense counsel to show time sheets and documentation to prove to the Court our position is sincere." Id. at ¶ 28. There are two profound problems with Mr. Woods's argument here.

         The first problem is that, in fact, the Court most certainly did not "take the government at its word that the discovery provided was 'not relevant.'" Indeed, the Court went out of its way to state from the bench, on the record, that "[t]he Court still does not know whether the production contain[s] highly relevant e-mail communications with the defendants or whether it contains wholly nonrelevant information, as the government contends." (Doc. 260, p. 58) (emphasis added). So Mr. Woods's assertion on this particular point is just objectively false.

         The second (and closely related) problem with Mr. Woods's argument here is that he is completely ignoring the legal burden that was his to carry on his Motion to Continue. He complains about the undersigned demanding proof from him on his Motion to Continue-which was opposed by every single other party in this case including his own codefendants-as if this demand of proof were something astonishing and scandalous rather than the perfectly ordinary and predictable thing that it actually is. Six months earlier, when this Court granted Mr. Woods's first Motion to Continue Trial (Doc. 47)- over the opposition of his codefendant Mr. Paris-this Court made very clear that it "remains very sensitive to Mr. Paris's legitimate interest in having these proceedings resolved as speedily as is reasonably possible, " and that "[a]ccordingly, the Court will not grant any further continuances of the trial date after today, barring truly extraordinary and presently unforeseeable good cause." See Doc. 57, pp. 6-7 (emphasis added). Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court has observed that the problem of "assembling the witnesses, lawyers, and jurors at the same place at the same time . . . counsels against continuances except for compelling reasons." Morris v. Slappy, 461 U.S. 1, 11 (1983) (emphasis added). So I am simply baffled as to why counsel for Mr. Woods would take exception to a demand for proof in support of his Second Motion to Continue, half a year after he was put on explicit notice that he would need to show "truly extraordinary and presently unforeseeable good cause" in order to obtain any further continuances of the trial date.

         Given these problems with the aforementioned example, one might expect that Mr. Woods would point to some additional rulings by this Court, on other motions in this case, as specific examples of apparent bias. He certainly seems to think such examples abound, writing:

The Court has repeatedly questioned the sincer[it]y of Woods and the other co-defendants in challenging the government's representations that they have provided "all relevant" discovery, including documents and recordings. The Court has repeatedly taken the government at its word regarding a number of matters, including the relevancy of discovery; whether the government aided Neal in the recording of Woods while represented by counsel; and whether it was in possession of relevant discovery, including audio recordings-positions that are either not true or that are now at the very least in doubt. The record is replete of instances where representations made by the government were indeed disingenuous, inaccurate, or untrue. Yet it's ...

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