State News

Federal Judge Slated to Sentence Black Steps Aside

Posted June 6, 2007 12:40 a.m. EDT
Updated June 6, 2007 7:13 p.m. EDT

— 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.