A Hennepin County judge’s impartiality during a probation revocation hearing was called into question Wednesday by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which sent the case back for a hearing before a different judge.
The unusual case involved Judge Martha Holton Dimick and Alton Finch, 24, who was convicted in 2013 of second-degree assault for his role in a drive-by shooting.
Holton Dimick sentenced Finch to a year in the county workhouse and three years of supervised probation, telling him that if he violated his probation, he’d face a three-year prison sentence.
When Finch failed to return to the workhouse after a furlough, a warrant was issued. It was later learned that he’d gone to Milwaukee for a funeral and turned himself in upon returning to Minnesota.
At a subsequent hearing on whether to revoke Finch’s probation, he asked that Holton Dimick be disqualified “based on a reasonable question of judicial impartiality,” court documents say. If she wouldn’t agree to remove herself, he wanted her to agree to an order to have the district court’s chief judge decide whether she should hear the case.
Holton Dimick rejected his motions, and rather than refer the case to the chief judge, she immediately started the probation revocation hearing. She then imposed a three-year prison sentence on Finch.
The state Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling, saying Finch hadn’t followed proper procedures in trying to get Holton Dimick disqualified and had offered no evidence that she was biased against him.
But in an opinion released Wednesday, state Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug disagreed. The state’s Code of Judicial Conduct says a request to disqualify a judge for cause must be heard by a chief judge, he wrote. Holton Dimick had no authority to deny his request, Lillehaug said.
Holton Dimick’s remarks questioning whether Finch lied at his sentencing about intending to turn his life around indicate that she couldn’t impartially make the findings required to revoke his probation, Lillehaug wrote.
Lillehaug vacated Finch’s revocation and ordered another hearing to be held in front of a judge other than Holton Dimick.
Ben Butler, one of Finch’s attorneys, said he was pleased with the decision, but couldn’t comment further.
Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case. In general, he said, judges at sentencings have a chance to communicate to defendants that they expect law-abiding behavior or there will be consequences.
“You try and make this clear to the defendant,” he said.