Lawyers helping represent the named plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit filed against Sherwood over the way officials fleece hot check defendants appeared in court this morning to ask a substitute judge to recuse himself, with an attorney for plaintiffs claiming Hamilton made comments praising Sherwood District Court Judge Milas “Butch” Hale III and said he hoped the civil suit would fail.
We visited Sherwood Hot Check Court and reported on the pending civil suit back in September. The lawsuit claims that poor hot check defendants in Pulaski County routinely find themselves on a treadmill of debt in Sherwood District Court over piddling original amounts, trapped by spiraling fines, fees and incarcerations every time they fail to appear before Hale or can’t pay their fines. Some people we talked to have been appearing before Hale for over 15 years on the same hot check and are still thousands in debt.
Hale has recused from sitting in judgement on the hot check cases of the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against Sherwood: Nikki Petree, Charles Dade, Nikita Lewis and Lee Andrew Robertson. North Little Rock District Judge Jim Hamilton, who normally decides criminal, civil and small claims matters, has been appointed to serve as judge on those cases.
North Little Rock attorney Reggie Koch, who appeared this morning with ACLU cooperating attorney Bettina Brownstein, said he was in North Little Rock court before Hamilton two weeks ago on an unrelated matter when the judge allegedly told him, after an appearance by Koch’s client, that Hamilton knew Hale to be a decent man and hoped the federal lawsuit would be dismissed. Later, Koch learned that Hamilton had been named as the replacement judge on the plaintiffs’ cases and brought it to the attention of other attorneys involved in the civil suit, including Brownstein.
Hamilton, who this morning never denied he made the statements Koch claimed he did, denied the request that he step down from the plaintiffs’ cases, asking Koch — who said he has been appearing before Hamilton in North Little Rock District Court on other matters for over a decade — whether he’s ever shown himself to be less than impartial in other cases. Koch said he had not, but said the appearance of impropriety should be avoided.
Hamilton quickly moved on to the cases of the four civil suit defendants. He wiped the slate clean for plaintiff Nikki Petree, 40, who wrote a check for $26.93 in September 2011 and had a debt of $2,656.93 in court costs, fines and fees at the time the lawsuit was filed. Hamilton also reinstated the driver’s license of plaintiff Lee Andrew Robertson, 44, who the lawsuit said wrote 11 checks totaling $200 over a two-week period in 2009, and was $3,054 debt as of Sept. 1. Hamilton set court dates for Dade and Lewis.
Outside the courtroom after the hearings, Brownstein said that Petree was “destitute but ecstatic” at the news that her debt to Sherwood was cleared after five years. “She wants to go back to work and she needs her driver’s license,” Brownstein said. “It’ll be another day before she gets it. That’s been a long, long road.”
Brownstein said it’s difficult for an attorney to ask a judge to recuse, and it is never done lightly. She said she still believes Hamilton should have stepped down. “It’s the appearance of impropriety, as Reggie said,” Brownstein said. “We had no reason to think he wouldn’t be anything but fair, but there is that appearance. He had spoken out of turn to Mr. Koch. He should not have expressed an opinion about this case in open court to Mr. Koch and then come and preside as the judge.”
Brownstein said that based on Hamilton’s actions toward the defendants in court this morning, he seemed to be acting in a fair and courteous manner. “Of course he’s coming in on the tail end of a case that’s gone on for years and years,” Brownstein said, “so he can’t fix what’s going on. He’s still instituting the stuff that was done to these defendants by Judge Hale.”