Sixth Circuit rules that state rules re: Recusal of judges (and other bar rules) may be reviewed by U.S. District Court.

Fieger wins partial victory in feud with state high court
Paul Egan / The Detroit News
A federal appeals court today upheld lawyer Geoffrey Fieger’s challenge to the way the Michigan Supreme Court handles requests for judges to recuse themselves.
The decision of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is a partial victory for Fieger and a setback for a Michigan Supreme Court that has been in the news because of internal dissension.
Fieger, the Southfield attorney known for his inflammatory comments and multimillion-dollar tort judgments, had challenged the refusal of four of the state’s seven Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from his cases.
Fieger alleged Justices Maura Corrigan, Clifford Taylor, Robert Young Jr. and Stephen Markman have demonstrated personal dislike and bias toward him.
The 6th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that federal courts have no jurisdiction to overturn past refusals by the justices to recuse themselves. But the appeals court reversed the decision of U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani when it said federal courts may consider a challenge to the constitutionality of the recusal process.
“This is basically the end for them,” Fieger said today of the four justices. “They’ve basically considered themselves above the law and they’re not answerable to anybody.”
Michigan Supreme Court justices make their own decisions on whether to recuse themselves from cases and provide no review process. Fieger alleged that violates his due process rights.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver, who has criticized her four colleagues for refusing to disqualify themselves from Fieger’s case, last week criticized them again in a dissenting opinion, saying they were advancing a policy of greater secrecy and less accountability.
Those justices have alleged Weaver is resentful over being replaced by her colleagues as chief justice.
Rusty Hills, a spokesman for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that represented the Michigan Supreme Court in the appeal, said he had no comment.
You can reach Paul Egan at (313) 222-2069 or pegan@detnews.com.
 

Quote from 6th. Circuit Ruling in Fieger Motion:
To the extent that Fieger challenges the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rules by
alleging that “[t]he threat that the Plaintiff cannot, and will not, receive a fair hearing before an impartial and independent tribunal is real, immediate, and continuing,” Rooker-Feldman does not bar his action.

 

To that extent, the source of Fieger’s alleged injury is not the past state court judgments; it is the purported unconstitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule as applied in future cases.

 

Such a claim is independent of the past state court judgments. Thus, insofar as the district
court dismissed Fieger’s challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court’s judgment must be reversed.

 

V. CONCLUSION
For the reasons set forth above, the district court’s judgment of dismissal is AFFIRMED to the extent, if any, that Fieger challenges the Justices’ past recusal decisions.

 

The district court’s judgment of dismissal is REVERSED to the extent Fieger challenges the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule.
 

The case shall be REMANDED to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
 

Find full text of this 6th. Circuit Opinion at:
http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/06a0469p-06.pdf CLICK HERE FOR FULL TEXT
GEOFFREY N. FIEGER,
Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JOHN D. FERRY, JR., et al.,
Defendants-Appellees.
No. 05-1295

Appeal from the United States District Court
for the Eastern District of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
No. 04-60089—Marianne O. Battani, District Judge.
Argued: September 21, 2006
Decided and Filed: December 26, 2006
Before: SILER and CLAY, Circuit Judges; STAFFORD, District Judge.
_________________________
OPINION
_________________________
STAFFORD, District Judge. Plaintiff, Geoffrey N. Fieger (“Fieger”), appeals the district court’s dismissal of his § 1983 civil rights action challenging the refusal of certain Michigan Supreme Court Justices to recuse themselves from cases in which he is involved. We AFFIRM the district court’s decision to dismiss Fieger’s challenge to the Justices’ past recusal decisions. We REVERSE the district court’s decision to dismiss Fieger’s challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule.
 

Excerpts:
 

II. MICHIGAN’S RECUSAL RULE
Michigan Court Rule (“MCR”) 2.003 governs the disqualification of judges in civil
proceedings, providing, in pertinent part, as follows:
(A) Who May Raise. A party may raise the issue of a judge’s disqualification by
motion, or the judge may raise it.
(B) Grounds. A judge is disqualified when the judge cannot impartially hear a case,
including but not limited to instances in which:
(1) The judge is personally biased or prejudiced for or against a party
or attorney.
. . . .
(C) Procedure.
. . . .
(3) Ruling. The challenged judge shall decide the motion. If the
challenged judge denies the motion,
(a) in a court having two or more judges, on the request of a party,
the challenged judge shall refer the motion to the chief judge, who
shall decide the motion de novo;
(b) in a single-judge court, or if the challenged judge is the chief judge, on
the request of a party, the challenged judge shall refer the motion to the state
court administrator for assignment to another judge, who shall decide the
motion de novo.

 

***
 

Fieger maintains that the Michigan Supreme Court does not follow the procedures set forth in MCR 2.003(c)(3) for review of a judge’s decision not to recuse himself or herself from a case.

 

He contends that, by failing to follow such procedures, the Michigan Supreme Court violates the Constitutional guarantee to due process. In his complaint, he asks the court to enter a declaratory judgment that the word “judge” in MCR 2.003 includes a “Justice” of the Michigan Supreme Court, thus making the review procedures applicable to the Michigan Supreme Court. In the alternative, Fieger asks the Court to declare that the rule is unconstitutional, both on its face and as applied.

 

III. THE ROOKER-FELDMAN DOCTRINE
In Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), the Supreme Court held that a federal district court may not review a state court decision for alleged federal law error. Such holding was reaffirmed sixty years later in District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). In Feldman, the court wrote:

 

[L]ower federal courts possess no power whatever to sit in direct
review of state court decisions. If the constitutional claims presented
to a United States District Court are inextricably intertwined with the
state court’s denial [of a claim] in a judicial proceeding . . . then the
District Court is in essence being called on to review the state-court
decision. This the District Court may not do.
 

Id. at 483 n.16 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The principles enunciated in Rooker and Feldman have become known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. As clarified in Exxon Mobil, application of the doctrine is confined to “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284.

 

As stressed in Exxon Mobil, “[i]f a federal plaintiff present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party . . . , then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.” Id. at 293 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also McCormick v. Braverman, 451 F.3d 382, 394 (6th Cir. 2006) (explaining that “[i]n Exxon, the Supreme Court implicitly repudiated the circuits’
post-Feldman use of the phrase ‘inextricably intertwined’ to extend Rooker-Feldman to situations where the source of the injury was not the state court judgment”); Hoblock v. Albany County Bd. of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 87 (2d Cir. 2005) (explaining that “federal plaintiffs are not subject to the Rooker-Feldman bar unless they complain of an injury caused by a state judgment” (emphasis omitted)); Davani v. Virginia Dep’t of Transp., 434 F.3d 712, 719 (4th Cir. 2006) (explaining that “[u]nder Exxon, . . . Feldmans ‘inextricably intertwined’ language does not create an additional legal
test for determining when claims challenging a state-court decision are barred, but merely states a conclusion: if the state-court loser seeks redress in the federal district court for the injury caused by the state-court decision, his federal claim is, by definition, ‘inextricably intertwined’ with the state-court decision, and is therefore outside of the jurisdiction of the federal district court”).

 

 In other words, “[t]he key point is that the source of the injury must be from the state court judgment itself; a claim alleging another source of injury is an independent claim.” McCormick, 451 F.3d at 394.
 

It is important to note that Howell and Chafin were both decided before the Supreme Court clarified the reach of Rooker-Feldman in Exxon Mobil.

 

 Indeed, given the lessons taught in Exxon Mobil and its progeny, the decisions in Howell and Chafin are not persuasive here.

 

In Feldman, the Supreme Court explained:

 

Challenges to the constitutionality of state bar rules . . . do not necessarily require a
United States District Court to review a final state court judgment in a judicial
proceeding. . . . United States District Courts . . . have subject matter jurisdiction
over general challenges to state bar rules, promulgated by state courts in non-judicial
proceedings, which do not require review of a final state court judgment in a
particular case.  Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486.

 

 In Exxon Mobil, the Court emphasized that “[i]f a federal plaintiff ‘present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has
reached in a case to which he was a party . . . , then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.’” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 293.
 

To the extent that Fieger challenges the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rules by
alleging that “[t]he threat that the Plaintiff cannot, and will not, receive a fair hearing before an impartial and independent tribunal is real, immediate, and continuing,” Rooker-Feldman does not bar his action.

 

To that extent, the source of Fieger’s alleged injury is not the past state court judgments; it is the purported unconstitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule as applied in future cases.

 

Such a claim is independent of the past state court judgments. Thus, insofar as the district
court dismissed Fieger’s challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court’s judgment must be reversed.

 

V. CONCLUSION
For the reasons set forth above, the district court’s judgment of dismissal is AFFIRMED to the extent, if any, that Fieger challenges the Justices’ past recusal decisions.

 

The district court’s judgment of dismissal is REVERSED to the extent Fieger challenges the constitutionality of Michigan’s recusal rule.

 

The case shall be REMANDED to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Comments are closed.