The revolving door of cases being heard in the 20th Judicial Circuit continued this week when Senior Judge Gael Wood recused himself from a wrongful death suit he was assigned to just two months ago.
The parents of a Sullivan man killed in a head-on crash on Route H last fall are suing the teen who was driving the other vehicle and Honda American Motor Co.
The case was originally filed Thursday, June 13, in the Franklin County Circuit Court by Edward Morgan Kirk and Amy Garner, both of Sullivan. They are seeking damages from Honda and Alyssa Sharp, 16, Sullivan, for the death of Mason Kirk, 18, on Sept. 16, 2018.
In a full circle, Presiding Judge Ike Lamke has now reassigned the case back to the judge who was originally assigned to hear it in mid-June, Judge Craig Hellmann.
Judges can recuse themselves from a case for a number of reasons and according to Missouri state statutes, it is within the rights of parties involved in cases to ask for a change of judge in a case.
Motions to recuse or disqualify judges and other adjudicators have been made for all sorts of reasons.
Most commonly, such motions are predicated upon a claim that the judge is biased in favor of one party, or against another, or that a reasonable objective observer would think he might be.
But such motions also are made on many other grounds, including the challenged judge’s:
• Interest in the subject matter or relationship with someone who is interested in it.
• Background or experience, such as the judge’s prior work as a lawyer.
• Personal knowledge about the parties or the facts of the case.
• Ex parte communications with lawyers or non-lawyers.
Multiple Franklin County judges bowing out of seemingly high profile cases seems to be a growing trend in recent years.
In the recent murder trial of Blake Schindler, who was found guilty of playing a role in the murder of Ken Allen, four judges, including Lamke, Wood and Hellman, were assigned before the case finally fell to Judge Michael Wright, who oversaw the trial that led to a conviction.
The case was originally assigned to Lamke in January 2017. It was then assigned to Wood in early March. Wood oversaw the case until his forced retirement at age 70 in late 2017, and Hellmann then took over in late December.
Hellmann was only part of the case for less than a month before recusing himself and the Missouri Supreme Court then assigned Judge Michael Wright from the 12th Judicial Circuit in Warren County.
In a criminal case involving an elderly driver, who hit and killed Missouri Department of Transportation worker Lyndon Ebker in April 2016, five judges were assigned before the final ruling was made by a judge from outside the 20th Judicial Circuit.
After more than two years, judges’ recusals and requests for changes of judges, the Missouri Supreme Court assigned 23rd Circuit Judge Diana Bartels, Jefferson County, to hear the case in late August 2018.
Judge Wood had been assigned the case since the original charges were filed on April 7, 2016. Hellmann inherited the case from Judge Wood when he was forced to retire in November 2017 because of age restrictions.
According to court documents, Hellmann recused himself from the case in May 2018.
On May 22, Lamke recused himself from the case, which led to the Supreme Court assigning Judge Michael Wright on May 31. Attorneys immediately requested a change of judge before any new hearing was held under Wright.
According to the Missouri Supreme Court Rule 2-2.7 Responsibility to Decide:
A judge shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge, except when recusal is appropriate under this code or other law.
Judges must be available to decide the matters that come before the court.
There are times when recusal is appropriate to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to protect the rights of litigants, and to preserve public confidence in the fairness, independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.
The dignity of the court, the judge’s respect for fulfillment of judicial duties, and a proper concern for the burdens that may be imposed upon the judge’s colleagues require that a judge not use recusal to avoid cases that present difficult, controversial or unpopular issues.