A Pinellas circuit judge’s “personal animosity” toward a defense lawyer has gotten him kicked off a criminal case.
According to court records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, judge William Burgess III and criminal defense lawyer Sean McQuaid have an “acrimonious personal relationship” that erupted years ago during Burgess’ days as a prosecutor.
Another judge was assigned to the case after the 2nd District Court of Appeal granted McQuaid’s petition Dec. 22.
“This matter should never have reached this point,” McQuaid said in an email. “But that decision was outside of my control and I had clients to protect.”
A court spokesman said Monday that Burgess declined to comment.
It’s common for judges to remove themselves from cases that could present a conflict or bias, such as a family or work history matter. But recusals are often done discreetly to “protect the integrity of the process,” said Louis J. Virelli III, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law who wrote a book about U.S. Supreme Court recusals.
“Lawyers, for obvious reasons, don’t want to be publicly critical of judges for that specific reason. They may be in front of them again,” Virelli said. “This case strikes me as notable in the fact that the judge chose not to recuse himself when it seemed pretty clear that there was a relationship there.”
Court records written by McQuaid chronicle the hostility between the judge and defense lawyer:
When Burgess was a prosecutor, he called McQuaid’s law partner to complain about him. After that, McQuaid wrote in his motion, Burgess “went out of his way to vigorously prosecute” his clients. McQuaid began to refuse to take cases assigned to Burgess.
During Burgess’ campaign for judge, McQuaid supported his opponent, donating $500 to the other candidate and making phone calls questioning Burgess temperament to serve as judge.
At social functions, Burgess proceeded to “snub” him several times by refusing to talk to him at lunch lines or cocktail tables.
“To have an adult man, much less a sitting circuit court judge, behave in that fashion was shocking,” McQuaid wrote.
In January 2015, Burgess was moved from the civil division to criminal. McQuaid worried the transfer would have “significant repercussions” on his criminal law practice. With the help of some judges, Burgess and McQuaid reached an agreement: he judge would recuse himself “voluntarily and discreetly” from McQuaid’s cases. Burgess did that at least three times, records state.
That changed in October, when McQuaid asked for a voluntary recusal after principal to child abuse charges were filed against two of his clients. Burgess’ assistant told him the judge wouldn’t sign the order. McQuaid called another judge to “broker a peace” with Burgess.
When that failed, McQuaid filed his motion on Nov. 8. Under Florida’s judicial rules, a judge can be disqualified from a case if a party “fears that he or she will not receive a fair trial” because of “specifically described prejudice or bias of the judge.”
A week later, Burgess denied the motion, explaining that it was “legally insufficient.” Seeing no other option, McQuaid said, he filed a petition with the appeals court.
Representing Burgess, the Office of the Attorney General responded that he filed the motion outside of a 10-day time period. The state also wrote that Burgess’ refusal to talk to McQuaid “would not lead a reasonably prudent person to believe that he would not receive a fair or impartial trial.”
Last month, the appeals court granted McQuaid’s petition.