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Order in the court!

Byline: Agenique Smiley

One of the greatest guarantees of American jurisprudence is judicial impartiality. The promise that every person called to judgment before a court in the United States despite their gender, race, religion or economic background will be so judged in accordance with the law and only by the facts presented against him or her is the reason why the American judicial system remains the archetype for many countries around the globe. For that same reason, any defendant claiming judicial bias as the basis of an alleged violation of his or her Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial must, first, overcome a heavy presumption of judicial impartiality. In People v. Willis (MiLW No. 07-96704, 7 pages), the Michigan Court of Appeals was called upon to set a standard of review to determine when a trial judges conduct creates the appearance of an unfair predisposition toward one party over another. In a holding affirming the ruling of the Wayne Circuit Court, the panel concluded that a trial judges conduct pierces the veil of judicial impartiality and violates a defendants constitutional right to a fair trial when, considering the totality of the circumstances, it is reasonably likely that the judges conduct improperly influenced the jury by creating the appearance of advocacy or partiality against a party. People v Willis Defendant Kelvin Willis convictions arise from his interactions with his neighbor, a 16-year-old male, in his Dearborn apartment on Aug. 12, 2015. The prosecution presented evidence that Willis spoke to the victim outside, asked the victim his age, and then invited him into his apartment. While inside, the victim sat on the couch, Willis put his arm around him, and used his cell phone to show the victim a video of two men engaging in sexual intercourse. Willis offered him $25 and then $0 in exchange for sexual favors. The victim declined both offers. After the second offer, when Willis briefly left the apartment, the victim fled and reported the incident to a neighbor. The neighbor contacted police, and officers arrested Willis. During an inventory search, officers found cocaine in the pocket of Willis pants. At trial, he denied any wrongdoing and asserted that the testimony of the victim and the police was inconsistent and not credible. On appeal, Willis argued that a new trial was required because the trial courts conduct pierced the veil of judicial impartiality and denied him a fair trial. Totality of the circumstances The panel, taking its lead from the Michigan Supreme Court case People v Stevens (MiLW No. 06-934, 30 pages), held that the determination of judicial bias is fact-specific and the court must consider the cumulative effect of any errors. The Stevens court held that a single instance of misconduct, unless egregious, is insufficient proof of judicial bias and directed courts to employ a totality of the circumstances analysis when making its determination. The Stevens court also offered guidance by way of factors to consider including the nature of the judicial conduct, the tone and demeanor of the trial judge, the scope of the judicial conduct in the context of the length and complexity of the trial and issues therein, the extent to which the judges conduct was directed at one side more than the other, and the presence of any curative instructions. Great influence Willis judicial bias claims rest on the trial court limiting his ability to cross-examine Dearborn Police Sgt. Brian Kapanowski and the courts alleged embarrassing of counsel by simply reading out loud the substance of MRE 611 when issuing its ruling. The Court of Appeals noted that reversal of a trial courts decision is proper when a judges comments were such as to place his great influence on one side or the other in relation to issues which our law leaves to jury verdict. However, the court also observed that what may be perceived as a trial judge being critical, or even hostile, toward a party or their counsel is insufficient to pierce the veil of judicial impartiality. A trial judges comments must reflect a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism such that the exercise of fair judgment is impossible in order to rise to a level of discrimination that would overcome the heavy presumption and justify piercing the veil of judicial impartiality. The court held that the trial courts actions did not unduly influence the jury and that it appropriately exercised its discretion to control the trial to prevent improper questioning of the sergeant and avoid wasting time. Controlling the court MRE 611(a) commands that the judge must exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence so as to make the interrogation and presentation effective for the ascertainment of the truth, avoid needless consumption of time, and protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment. The panel recognized that the trial court has a duty to control court proceedings and has wide discretion and power in fulfilling that duty. The judge merely read out loud the applicable rule of evidence, MRE 611; this does not show partiality, explained Assistant Wayne County Prosecuting AttorneyDeborah Blair via email. The judge felt the need to explain his ruling because defense counsel chose to ignore the parameters for the testimony he had already set the examination was supposed to be limited to what transpired during the Sergeants discussion with the victim at his squad car, she continued. According to Blair, defense counsels choice to ask irrelevant questions about the sex offender registration required the trial judge to take control of the proceedings. I agree with the Court of Appeals that Willis failed to show proofs sufficient to meet the standards set forth inPeople v Stevens, Blair concluded. If you would like to comment on this story, email Agenique Smiley at

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Title Annotation:judicial bias case
Author:Smiley, Agenique
Publication:Michigan Lawyers Weekly
Date:Jan 26, 2018
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