Over the course of almost a decade of litigation as part of an individual debtor’s chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the bankruptcy judge, in In re Tucker, made “half a dozen or so” comments about the debtor’s demeanor, credibility, and litigation strategy, including referring to the debtor as a “crook,” “dirty bird,” and a “skillful manipulator.”  The debtor filed a motion for recusal, arguing the judge had a personal bias.  After a series of appeals, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order upholding the bankruptcy court’s denial of the motion to recuse.  Because the bankruptcy judge’s expressions of his opinion of the debtor were grounded in his experience overseeing the proceedings, the district court and Eleventh Circuit held that the denial of the recusal motion did not amount to an abuse of discretion. 

You’re Stuck With Him

Federal law requires judges to recuse themselves when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.  When considering a recusal motion, the Eleventh Circuit held that a court must decide whether an “objective, disinterested, lay observer” who is fully informed of the facts underlying the grounds on which the recusal was sought would have significant doubt about the judge’s impartiality.  Further, the Supreme Court has held that a judge need not recuse him or herself when his or her knowledge and the subsequent opinion of bias or prejudice resulting from that knowledge were properly acquired in the course of the proceedings.

Here, the 11th Circuit found that the bankruptcy judge’s comments about the debtor were based on what he had observed in court and did not reflect a “deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgement impossible.”  Despite the comments being “undoubtedly reflective” of the judge’s annoyance with the debtor, they did not rise to the level of requiring recusal.  Citing a prior Supreme Court ruling, the Eleventh Circuit explained that a judge’s expressions of impatience, dissatisfaction, annoyance, and even anger “are within the bounds of what imperfect men and women, even after having been confirmed as federal judges, sometimes display.”  Therefore, without more, the bankruptcy judge’s comments suggesting annoyance were insufficient to demonstrate the kind of favoritism or antagonism that would make recusal necessary and the Eleventh Circuit upheld the bankruptcy court’s order denying the recusal motion.

To Err (and Be Annoyed) Is Human

The outcome of this case reminds us that bankruptcy judges are people too, although sometimes imperfect ones.  Although judges should not be impartial, showing a bit of annoyance might get a pass.