July 30, 2015 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last month denied the City of Milwaukee’s request to force a federal district judge off lawsuits by plaintiffs alleging police officers conducted unconstitutional strip searches and body cavity searches.
Judge J.P. Stadtmueller was assigned to the cases in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. But the City of Milwaukee, the defendant in these cases, raised questions about his impartiality, citing statements he made during the course of litigation.
Milwaukee moved for recusal, but Judge Stadtmueller declined. Milwaukee and its police chief petitioned for a writ of mandamus to force Stadtmueller from the cases.
Recently, in In Re: City of Milwaukee et al., No. 15-1848 (June 9, 2015) a three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court rejected the petition, concluding that evidence questioning the judge's impartiality was not sufficient enough to require Stadtmueller’s recusal.
The City of Milwaukee and police chief Edward Flynn argued that during the course of litigation, Judge Stadtmueller made five statements in particular that raised questions about his impartiality. For instance, in one case, a jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages to a plaintiff who was illegally stopped and arrested by Milwaukee police officers.
Stadtmueller reduced the punitive damages award to $54,000 but referenced a Wall Street Journal article that quoted Chief Flynn. Flynn was commenting about a New York court’s ruling that the NYC Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies were illegal.
In the article, Flynn was quoted as saying: “That’s what worries us about what’s happening in New York. It would be a shame if some people decided to put us back in our cars just answering calls and ceding the streets to thugs.”
In a footnote to the order reducing punitive damages, Judge Stadtmueller referenced the article and Flynn’s quote and wrote that “MPD Chief Edward Flynn has made clear that one of his prerogatives is encouraging large amounts of pedestrian stops, regardless of the reasons.”
The three-judge appeals panel rejected Milwaukee’s claim that Judge Stadtmueller’s statement here showed signs that he was not impartial, despite the fact that Stadtmueller relied on an extrajudicial source, the Wall Street Journal article, in making those statements.
“Taken literally, the judge’s footnote about Chief Flynn’s comment was not out of place,” Williams wrote. “A police force that wishes to replicate the New York City policy can be described fairly, though not conclusively, as intending to carry out a policy of illegal stops.”
The panel also noted that “Judge Stadtmueller’s apparent concerns about Milwaukee’s policing tactics did not prevent him from ruling in the city’s favor” by reducing the jury’s punitive damages award by nearly 90 percent, from $500,000 to $45,000.
The panel reviewed other statements and concluded that they did not show the degree of “favoritism” or “antagonism” required to compel recusal.
“His comments do not raise a reasonable concern about the judge’s impartiality unless they show an antagonism so deep that he can no longer preside fairly,” Judge Williams wrote. “Nothing we have seen, even considering all the challenged statements together, reasonably suggests such antagonism."