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Federal Judge Slated to Sentence Black Steps Aside

Posted June 6, 2007

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— The federal judge who had been slated to handle the sentencing of former House Speaker Jim Black stepped aside Tuesday, citing the public's needs for closure and confidence in the administration of justice.

In a 64-page order recusing himself, U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III said Black's case is unique and that assigning the case to another judge would be in the public interest.

"The truly unique element in this case is the reality that the people of North Carolina and the current General Assembly need to have closure on the corrupt chapter that Black has written into the history of the Office of the Speaker," Dever wrote in the order signed Tuesday.

Dever also said a delay in the federal sentencing for Black would delay a similar hearing in state court. The Democrat from Mecklenburg County pleaded guilty in February to one federal count of accepting things of value in connection with the business of state government.

"I think that Judge Dever really showed insight and wisdom in saying, 'I'm not going to allow there to be a distracting issue, an issue unrelated to the case," said Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

Black was due to be sentenced last month, but Dever delayed that after Black's lawyer Ken Bell filed a motion asking for the recusal. Bell noted that Dever, while still an attorney in private practice, sued Black and other state officials on behalf of state Republican leaders and a GOP voter earlier this decade. The lawsuit challenged the maps approved by the General Assembly for its own House and Senate districts.

Dever's clients won the redistricting case at the state Supreme Court, forcing Black and other lawmakers to redraw the districts.

While Bell has said the motion for recusal did not allege actual bias by the judge, he argued that a reasonable person could question Dever's ability to be impartial.

In the order, Dever rejected Bell's argument.

"Black believes reasonable people might reasonably perceive that his 2007 federal criminal case is about my role as a lawyer in an official-capacity civil redistricting lawsuit filed in 2001. That notion is false," he wrote.

But Dever decided to recuse himself on his own motion, citing public interest and acknowledging that recusal issues "concern perceptions, not reality."

"Closure will not come if Black can try to direct the focus of this criminal case away from the reality of his own corruption and instead discuss meritless perceptions about the undersigned," Dever wrote.

In the order, Dever also questioned the timing of Bell's motion, which came after Dever sentenced former Rep. Michael Decker to four years in prison and said he was considering an "upward departure" from the range of sentences recommended by court officials for Black. Black and his lawyer waited more than two months to ask the judge to step aside, Dever said.

"It appears Black was content to 'test the waters' for 76 days, but viewed 'the waters' as 'uncomfortably hot'" after Decker's sentencing and the order last month regarding Black's sentencing, Dever wrote.

But Shanahan said a new judge doesn't guarantee a lighter sentence for Black.

"Whether it's Judge Dever or any other federal judge in the Eastern District (of North Carolina), I'm sure that there'll be strong in the message that they intend to send that what he did was costly, wrong and harmful to North Carolina," he said.

The judge has instructed the clerk's office to reassign the proceedings to another judge, but no new sentencing date has been set.

20 Comments

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  • djofraleigh Jun 6, 2007

    Why isn't this story one of the featured instead of being buried where I had to click on more? The crimes of this political leader of the Democratic Party robbed NC citizens of their freedom to have their government of choice by free elections. He should be given lots of time and then banned from setting foot in this state. There should be a Politician Predator list so we know if they live near us.

  • djofraleigh Jun 6, 2007

    This judge saw that this issue would delay the sentencing for some time, then be on appeal for much longer, so someone else can come in and do justice for NC. BLack lied, stole, and corrupted the free election system, keeping a party from having its rightful control of the assembly. He should get a long sentence. I will believe it when I see it. I'm a democrat, but in this state the democrats stink. If Black doesn't get five years in jail, at least, then I say all those car thieves and bad check artists should walk too. I want more of the graft, bridery, and outright corrupt politicans to be invested and the bad ones sent to jail.

  • yruatwit Jun 6, 2007

    I'm somewhat at a loss for understanding Dever's decision. Judge Dever rejected Bell's argument of "a reasonable person could question Dever's ability to be impartial", however, he recuses himself based on "public interest and potential perceptions." This seems to be somewhat of a dichotomy.

  • FE Jun 6, 2007

    bill0, while I basically agree with you, one might be asking why it took the federal judge around two months to figure out he had a "conflict."

  • bill0 Jun 6, 2007

    Don't worry - Black is going to end up in prison. He might delay for a bit, but he knows where he is headed.

    The judge did the right thing here. While he might think he can put his past dealings with Black aside during sentencing, that isn't the standard that judges should use. They should avoid even the appearance of bias. This is very good decision on his part to keep even the appearance of politics out of the process. I can't imagine Jim Black would behave the same if the shoes were reversed, but the justice system deserves better even if Black himself doesn't.

  • Halyard Jun 6, 2007

    And Black continues to be free of jail time.

  • git-er-done Jun 6, 2007

    Dever should have never been assigned the case to begin with...oops, how did that happen? The knowlege of his dealings with Black in the past just slipped through the cracks. Go figure.

  • papa jim Jun 6, 2007

    wonder how much it cost mr black to get dever to quit ?

  • superman Jun 6, 2007

    The judge is a man of few words-- took him 64 pages to say he wasnt going to handle the case. He has writer's cramp now and be eligible for disability payments or workman's comp.

  • Dr Holliday Jun 6, 2007

    If the Judge is not up to doing his job,maybe he should resign also.

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