Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler recused herself on Wednesday from the George Zimmerman case because of her ties to a lawyer and CNN legal analyst who has been outspoken about the case. The case will be heard instead by Judge Kenneth Lester.
Judges are expected to recuse, or disqualify, themselves from a case in which they have a genuine or apparent conflict of interest. This policy aims to preserve the integrity and fairness of the courts, so the public will not question the court’s impartiality.
Judge Recksiedler is married to a lawyer who is a partner in the same firm as Mark NeJame, a CNN legal analyst who has been outspoken about this case and who at one time considered the possibility of representing George Zimmerman.
A genuine conflict of interest results where a judge stands to gain in some way from the outcome of the case. Indirect gains by judges from spousal earnings has been controversial — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently faced criticism and calls for his recusal from the Affordable Care Act case because of his wife Ginni’s career in conservative activism, including advocacy against “Obamacare.” Recusal is generally left to the judge’s own discretion, and Justice Thomas chose to preside over that case.
Here, it does not seem that Judge Recksiedler had any conflict of interest. NeJame is not representing Zimmerman, and thus no shared profits resulting from the case could make their way to the judge’s husband. Nevertheless, Judge Recksiedler’s ties to NeJame could lead to an appearance of a conflict, given his continued commentary on the case.
In such a high profile trial as Zimmerman’s, where prejudice already factors into the public’s perception of the case, Judge Recksiedler is perfectly justified in recusing herself — even if she did not have to.