Federal courts beat: All judges recused in Erlinder lawsuit

  • Article by: Randy Furst
  • Star Tribune
  • May 19, 2014 - 9:36 PM

Law professor Peter Erlinder can add another controversy to his résumé.

You may recall he created headlines when he was imprisoned in Rwanda in 2010 and it took an international campaign to free him.

A tenured professor at William Mitchell College of Law since 1986, Erlinder sued the St. Paul school in February. He claimed he had been unjustly barred from campus for behavior triggered by post-traumatic stress syndrome that he developed after the Rwanda experience. The college “vigorously” denied his allegations.

To avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest, federal Judge Donovan Frank, appointed to hear the case, recused himself in April, noting he was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell.

Within hours, Minnesota’s Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis disqualified the state’s 21 federal judges and magistrates from presiding over the case.

Court sources said he wanted to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Many of the judges have ties to William Mitchell, and Erlinder is well known to the judiciary, having championed a variety of social justice causes before the court.

A mass disqualification is unusual but not unprecedented. Davis has recused the entire federal bench on several other occasions, court sources say. He did it in 2012, when attorney Jill Clark sued Hennepin District Court and others, including Davis.

Just over a week ago, Erlinder’s attorney, Peter Nickitas, filed a new suit on his behalf, similar to the first one, but adding new claims. Normally a lawyer would amend an existing suit, but with no judge appointed, Nickitas said he worried that the deadline would expire for approving the new claims.

Davis reacted swiftly. Last Monday, for the second time in a month, he disqualified every federal judge in Minnesota from hearing the Erlinder case.

Davis asked William Jay Riley, chief judge of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, to assign a judge from outside of Minnesota, and last Wednesday, Riley named Ralph Erickson, chief judge of the district court in North Dakota, to hear the case.


Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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