PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has asked a federal judge to disqualify himself from a racial profiling case, saying questions during a recent hearing have created the appearance of judicial bias.
The request Friday from Arpaio comes weeks ahead of scheduled contempt-of-court hearings that could lead to increased oversight and fines against the lawman known nationally for anti-illegal immigration policies and tough conditions at county jails.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled in 2013 that the sheriff’s office had systematically racially profiled Latinos in its regular traffic and immigration patrols.
He has been presiding over hearings related to his orders in that decision, which Arpaio has acknowledged violating. But Arpaio’s lawyers say another judge should be appointed, since there’s a perception Snow has a personal stake in the case.
The sheriff’s attorneys say Snow asked Arpaio about a secret investigation that examined a statement allegedly made by the judge’s wife. She reportedly said the judge did not want Arpaio to win re-election, though it is not clear whether she ever made such a comment.
“No reasonable person with knowledge of the facts can deny that Judge Snow is now investigating and presiding over issues involving his own family,” Arpaio’s lawyers wrote in the court filing.
Lawyers pressing the case against Arpaio argue the request is nothing more than a stall tactic. “The timing of this motion is suspect,” ACLU attorney Cecillia Wang said.
They said Arpaio requested the investigation and is now using it as a justification to delay a contempt hearing that marks the thorniest legal troubles of a 22-year tenure pockmarked by lawsuits and accusations. “They went out on their own to get some dirt,” attorney Dan Pochoda said.
The request will put all litigation in the profiling case on hold until a decision is made. It is unclear whether the contempt hearings set for next month will be rescheduled.
Those hearings will examine his acknowledged violation of court orders in the racial profiling lawsuit.
In addition to the civil contempt case, the judge has said he intends on later recommending a criminal contempt case that could expose Arpaio to jail time.
Since the 2013 verdict, Snow has admonished the sheriff’s office over a variety of issues, including the quality of investigations into accusations that deputies were stealing cash and property from immigrants during traffic stops and safe-house busts.
This is not the first time Arpaio has sought to remove a judge from the profiling case.
Arpaio’s lawyers succeeded in 2009 in getting a new judge after questioning the impartiality of then-U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia, who was originally assigned the case, because the judge’s twin sister was the leader of the National Council of La Raza, a prominent advocacy group for Latinos.
Snow, an appointee of President George W. Bush, then took over the case.
Just before the case went to trial in 2012, Snow raised the possibility of his recusal after lawyers pressing the lawsuit learned his brother-in-law is a partner in the firm where they work.
The judge’s brother-in-law isn’t involved in the profiling case and litigates insurance, patent, and product liability out of the firm’s office in Washington, D.C.
At the time, attorneys on both sides said they wanted Snow to remain on the case and that no reasonable observer could conclude the judge would be biased because of that relationship.