From Casetext: Smarter Legal Research

Birt v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia
Nov 25, 1986
256 Ga. 483 (Ga. 1986)




Interlocutory appeal. Jefferson Superior Court. Before Judge O'Connor, Senior Judge.

Joseph M. Nursey, Millard C. Farmer, Jr., Carla J. Friend, for appellant.

Richard A. Malone, District Attorney, for appellee.

The appellant, Billy Sunday Birt, appeared before the Superior Court of Jefferson County for resentencing in a case in which his death penalty had been reversed. See Birt v. Hopper, 245 Ga. 221 ( 265 S.E.2d 276) (1980), cert. den. 449 U.S. 855 (1980).

The defense filed a motion to recuse Judge Walter C. McMillan, the judge scheduled to preside in the matter. Through appropriate administrative channels, the motion to recuse was assigned to Judge James B. O'Connor for determination, but Judge McMillan, notwithstanding, made a ruling that the motion was not timely and was not legally sufficient. On appeal, we reversed, holding that "once a superior court judge, against whom a motion to recuse has been filed, refers the motion to recuse to another judge, he is no longer qualified to hear any phase of the recusal hearing." Birt v. State, 255 Ga. 693 ( 342 S.E.2d 303) (1986).

Thereafter, Judge O'Connor granted the state's motion to dismiss the motion to recuse Judge McMillan, without an evidentiary hearing on the motion to recuse, from which order we granted this interlocutory appeal.

1. Rule 25.2 of the Uniform Rules for the Superior Courts provides: "When a judge is presented with a motion to recuse, or disqualify, accompanied by an affidavit, he shall temporarily cease to act upon the merits of the matter and shall immediately determine the timeliness of the motion and the legal sufficiency of the affidavit, and make a determination, assuming any of the facts alleged in the affidavit to be true, whether recusal would be warranted. If it is found that the motion is timely, the affidavit sufficient and that recusal would be authorized if some or all of the facts set forth in the affidavit are true, another judge shall be assigned to hear the motion to recuse." (Emphases supplied.) 253 Ga. 841. Since Judge McMillan had not made the three requisite determinations at the time the motion was reassigned — i.e., the timeliness of the motion, the legal sufficiency of the affidavit, and whether, assuming any of the alleged facts were true, recusal would be warranted — and since, under our ruling in Birt v. State, 255 Ga. 693, supra, he could not make such determinations after the motion had been referred to another judge, it was necessary and proper for the assignee judge to have made these determinations, which the alleged recusant judge was supposed to have made.

2. It was not error to uphold the timeliness of the motion to recuse, which was filed "four days before the deadline imposed by Judge McMillan for filing the motion." Birt v. State, 255 Ga. 693, supra. See generally Rule 25.2 of the Uniform Rules for the Superior Courts, 253 Ga. 841, supra; Hunnicutt v. Hunnicutt, 248 Ga. 516 (1) ( 283 S.E.2d 891) (1981).

3. As to the legal sufficiency of the accompanying "affidavit," it appears that the foundational facts for the allegation of the judge's bias and prejudice are stated in the recusal motion itself and the amendment thereto, and the "affidavit" accompanying the original motion (none accompanied the amendment) was merely a sworn verification that the facts contained in the foregoing motion are true and correct to the best of the movant-affiant's knowledge and belief.

Rule 25.1 of the Uniform Rules for the Superior Courts, 253 Ga. 841, supra, provides in part: "All motions to recuse or disqualify a judge presiding in a particular case or proceeding shall be in writing, accompanied by an affidavit asserting the facts upon which the motion is founded, and timely filed." (Emphasis supplied.) The case law has generally upheld the necessity for such affidavit. E.g., Hunnicutt v. Hunnicutt, 248 Ga. 516 (1), supra; State v. Fleming, 245 Ga. 700, 702 ( 267 S.E.2d 207) (1980); Quarterman v. Memorial Medical Center, 176 Ga. App. 92 (1) ( 335 S.E.2d 589) (1985), cert. den.; Wages v. State, 165 Ga. App. 587 (1) ( 302 S.E.2d 112) (1983), cert. den.; Buford v. State, 162 Ga. App. 498 (7) ( 291 S.E.2d 256) (1982), cert. den.; Howard v. Dept. of Human Resources, 157 Ga. App. 306 (1) ( 277 S.E.2d 301) (1981).

However, it is an elementary rule of pleading that substance, not mere nomenclature, controls. McDonald v. State, 222 Ga. 596, 597 (1) ( 151 S.E.2d 121) (1966); Deen v. State, 216 Ga. 387 (2) ( 116 S.E.2d 595) (1960). The rule in civil practice, that "[a]ll pleadings shall be so construed as to do substantial justice" (OCGA § 9-11-8 (f)), should be no less applicable in a criminal case, especially one, as here, involving the death penalty. Hence, the original motion to recuse, construed together with the "affidavit" verifying the facts alleged in the original motion, is deemed to constitute a substantial compliance with the requirements of Rule 25.1 of the Uniform Rules for the Superior Courts, supra, and the case law, as to the original motion. (The amendment to the motion, not having been verified, is not properly considered.)

There is some support for this construction in the case law. State v. Fleming, 245 Ga. 700, supra, p. 702, cites to federal cases holding that "even absent a legally sufficient affidavit, it is still within the trial judge's discretion to refuse to hear the case on the grounds of personal prejudice or bias. [Cits.]" In Jordan v. Hodges, 162 Ga. App. 473 (1) ( 291 S.E.2d 778) (1982), the reviewing court looked at both the motion and the accompanying affidavit for the foundational facts. In Riggins v. State, 159 Ga. App. 791 ( 285 S.E.2d 579) (1981), although the motion was unsupported by affidavit, the appellate court noted that "no other evidence concerning the allegations appears in the record." In Cargill v. State, 255 Ga. 616, 622 (2) ( 340 S.E.2d 891) (1986), we recognized the requirement of a supporting affidavit, but nevertheless ruled on the merits of the motion to recuse even absent such affidavit.

4. We now review the facts alleged as the basis for the original motion to recuse Judge McMillan, to determine whether, assuming that any of them are true, recusal would be warranted. Our determination of this issue is guided by the following criteria. "In order to be disqualifying the alleged bias `must stem from an extra-judicial source and result in an opinion on the merits on some basis other than what the judge learned from his participation in the case'" United States v. Grinnell Corp., 384 U.S. 563, 583 ( 86 S.C. 1698, 16 L.Ed.2d 778) (1966); Carter v. State, 246 Ga. 328, 329 ( 271 S.E.2d 475) (1980). The alleged bias of the judge must be "`of such a nature and intensity to prevent the defendant . . . from obtaining a (trial) uninfluenced by the court's prejudgment.' [Cit.] To warrant disqualification of a trial judge the affidavit supporting the recusal motion `must give fair support to the charge of a bent of mind that may prevent or impede impartiality of judgment.' [Cits.]" (Emphasis supplied.) Jones v. State, 247 Ga. 268, 271 (4) ( 275 S.E.2d 67) (1981). Under Canon 2 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, a judge "must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety." (Emphasis supplied.) 251 Ga. 897, Commentary. Canon 3.C. (1) provides that "Judges should disqualify themselves in proceedings in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances where: (a) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party's lawyer." (Emphasis supplied.) 251 Ga. 900. It is not necessary that there be shown "any actual impropriety on the part of the trial court judge. The fact that his impartiality `might reasonably be questioned' suffices for his disqualification." King v. State, 246 Ga. 386, 390 (7) ( 271 S.E.2d 630) (1980).

Without setting forth all of the facts alleged as the basis for the original motion, it is our opinion that the verified motion sets forth some factual allegations, which if proved, could support a finding of partiality sufficient to require recusal. Rule 25.2, Uniform Rules for the Superior Courts, 253 Ga. 841, supra. Thus defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his motion and it was error to dismiss.

Judgment reversed and remanded. All the Justices concur.


Summaries of

Birt v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia
Nov 25, 1986
256 Ga. 483 (Ga. 1986)
Case details for

Birt v. State

Case Details

Full title:BIRT v. THE STATE

Court:Supreme Court of Georgia

Date published: Nov 25, 1986


256 Ga. 483 (Ga. 1986)
350 S.E.2d 241

Citing Cases

Patterson v. Butler

The only ground pertinent is whether the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned. See Birt v.…

In re Shafer

While the rules of the Georgia Court of Appeals do not specifically provide for a recusal procedure, our…