Federal judge may remove himself from public defender cases

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A federal judge today issued an opinion saying that he would disqualify himself from all cases in which the federal public defender's office represents a client before him provided the office shows that it sought permission from each of the 21 defendants involved before it sought that relief from the court.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab issued the three-page opinion a day after the public defender's office filed motions asking the judge to disqualify himself from every case it had pending before him.

The motions accuse the judge of being biased against the office, citing as an example his rulings in a case involving Youa Vue, charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

However, in his opinion, Judge Schwab strikes back at the PD's office, particularly singling out the attorney on the Vue case as having failed to do her job.

Though he wrote that in his 7-1/2 years on the bench he has been "impressed with the zeal and quality of the representation of the [assistant federal public defenders] and counted them as professional colleagues in our great system of justice," he blamed Elisa Long for allowing Mr. Vue and another client to spend more time in custody than they should have based on the advisory guideline range they faced on their charges.

He accused Ms. Long of being "relatively inexperienced as a trial attorney."

Ms. Long, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law, has been practicing since 1994, and has worked as a state and federal public defender for more than 10 years.

She had two jury trials before Judge Schwab in the last year, including one, in which her client was found not guilty of the most serious charge against him, carjacking.

"Instead of privately working with its less experienced attorneys, and privately implementing quality control procedures and other best practices relating to the impact of the filing of continual motions for extensions of time in light of the potential sentencing guidelines range, to make sure that such situations never happen again, the [federal public defender's] office blames the Judge. Such conduct does not remedy the dreadful situation of a defendant sitting in prison for more days and months than his or her actual sentence should be," he wrote.

He said that he will grant the motions to disqualify for all 21 defendants but only if the public defender's office meets face to face with each client and obtains an affidavit from each one saying that they agreed with their attorneys' decisions to file the motions to disqualify before the motions were filed.

He gave the office until Sept. 10 to provide the affidavits.

Further, he wrote, that "the court will implement an automatic disqualification for all future criminal cases where a defendant is represented by an attorney from the FPD's Office."

An official with the federal clerk's office, which handles the assignment of cases, was unsure how Judge Schwab's cases might be reassigned if he grants the motions.

Chief U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster would not comment on the situation.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620


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