IN RE SPECHT (September 8, 2010)
Years ago, Eric Specht started a small business that he called Android Data Corporation. He registered "Android Data" as a trademark and registered the domain name “androiddata.com." Within a few years, however, he allowed the business to fold, the domain name registration to lapse, and the corporation to be dissolved. He must have had a change of heart several years later when Google came out with the Android operating system for cell phones. He tried to resurrect the corporation, he registered the domain name "android-data.com" –and then he sued Google and a number of other defendants for trademark infringement. The case was assigned to Judge Leinenweber. After the case had been pending for a year and as discovery was closing, he sought leave to add four defendants, including AT&T. Because his wife is on the AT&T board and together they own AT&T stock, Judge Leinenweber is never assigned a case in which AT&T is a party. Nevertheless, the judge decided to hear the motion. He denied the motion to amend and also refused to recuse himself. Specht petitioned for a writ of mandamus.
In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Kanne and Hamilton denied the petition. With respect to 28 U.S.C. §§ 455(b)(5) and 455(b)(6), the Court noted that disqualification depends on the relationship between a judge and a "party." Since AT&T is not a party, those sections do not require disqualification. The Court did conclude, however, that § 455(a)’s disqualification requirement when a judge's impartiality might be questioned comes into play. Although the Court expressly rejected the notion that the mere filing of the motion required recusal, it did conclude that a judge should not decide the merits of a motion if granting the motion would require his recusal. The proper procedure, said the Court, would have been for Judge Leinenweber to refer the underlying motion to another judge. If the uninterested judge denied the motion, Judge Leinenweber could continue to preside over the case. The Court nevertheless concluded that mandamus was unnecessary because it, as a disinterested panel, could decide the motion. Indeed, in the Court's view, granting the motion would be an abuse of discretion -- the case is a year old, discovery is closed, AT&T could have been named when the case was filed, and Google is the only necessary defendant for the relief requested.