In re Nathan B.

Conn. App.

August 18, 2009

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS: JUDICIAL BIAS/APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY

In this unusual and striking appeal of a termination of parental rights decision, the sole issue was whether the trial judge’s continuing to preside at trial created an appearance of impropriety, thereby requiring his recusal. The appellate court concluded that it did, and reversed the judgment of the trial court.

On the first day of a two day termination of parental rights trial, the court reprimanded the father for his “disruptive” behavior in the court room and engaged in a lengthy colloquy with the respondent that included the following exchange:

”[The Respondent]: I’ve been very, no, I’ve been very concerned for a long time.

”The Court: Well, it doesn’t look like it from what I’ve seen here. Please continue. And you can’t blame me for taking that . . . opinion.

”[The Respondent]: Well, Your Honor . . . .

”The Court: Somebody who cared would not stick himself in jail and stay there so he couldn’t see his child. Now, I don’t want to get into it any further. Move on. [I’m] [s]ick of these people who come in and say, ‘Oh, I really care. I haven’t seen him in nine years, Judge, but I really care.’ Check with your attorney see what he has done in the last nine years with his family and how he has worked. Check with anybody here. They tended to their families. Move on.”

At the conclusion of the case, the father’s counsel moved for a new trial on the grounds that the court was not impartial. Said motion was denied on the grounds that the father had “opened the door” for the dialogue by addressing the court directly. The court ultimately granted the termination petition. On appeal, the father contended that the court violated the principles of impartiality and fairness set forth in canon 3(c) (1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, and a new trial should have been granted.

The appellate court determined that “[a]n objective observer reasonably could believe that the court’s comments suggested that the respondent’s motives were disingenuous and that the court characterized the respondent as a member of a group of litigants who insincerely assert an interest in court. The respondent’s credibility was implicitly questioned before he testified. The court engaged in conduct that would lead a reasonable person to question the court’s impartiality. Accordingly, the court abused its discretion by failing to grant the respondent’s motion for a new trial.”

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