A federal judge — nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1996 — on Wednesday emphatically rejected Donald Trump’s demand that he recuse from Trump’s sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, declaring that there’s no legitimate basis to demand that he step back from the case.
In a five-page order, Judge Donald Middlebrooks emphasized that he has never met either of the Clintons and was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate, requiring backing from both parties.
“Every federal judge is appointed by a president who is affiliated with a major political party, and, therefore, every federal judge could theoretically be viewed as beholden, to some extent or another,” Middlebrooks wrote. “As judges, we must all transcend politics.”
Middlebrooks also pointed out he was chosen by a judicial selection commission appointed by Florida’s bipartisan Senate delegation at the time: Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and Republican Sen. Connie Mack.
Middlebrooks noted that all judges swear an oath to faithfully interpret the law, requiring them to put that mission ahead of partisan politics. “I have done so for the last twenty-five years, and this case will be no different,” he wrote as he turned down the recusal motion Trump’s lawyers filed just two days ago.
Middlebrooks observed that Trump filed his lawsuit in the Fort Pierce division of the Southern District of the Florida federal court and that the only District Court judge who sits in that division is a Trump appointee. However, under the court’s docketing system, the case wound up assigned to Middlebrooks, who sits in West Palm Beach.
“Despite the odds, this case landed with me instead,” Middlebrooks wrote, suggesting that Trump’s legal team was judge-shopping — seeking to get the case in front of a judge who might view it favorably. He also quoted an appellate precedent observing that recusal demands are “sometimes driven more by litigation strategies than by ethical concerns.”
Trump, Middlebrooks noted, never seemed to have those ethical qualms when his legal matters landed in front of judges he nominated to the bench.
“When Plaintiff is a litigant before a judge that he himself appointed, he does not tend to advance these same sorts of bias concerns,” Middlebrooks wrote, citing two of Trump’s failed lawsuits in his bid to overturn the 2020 election, and a legal fight by the House Ways and Means Committee to obtain Trump’s tax returns from the IRS. Those cases were presided over by Judges Brett Ludwig, Stephanos Bibas and Trevor McFadden — all Trump appointees — without any concerns raised by Trump’s legal team about impartiality.
The south Florida court’s operating procedures say that it tries to make it difficult for litigants to pick their judge and that lawyers should not seek to do so.
“The assignment schedule shall be designed to prevent any litigant from choosing the Judge to whom an action or proceeding is to be assigned, and all attorneys shall conscientiously refrain from attempting to vary this Local Rule,” the policy says.
The decision comes at the outset of Trump’s massive lawsuit against Hlilary Clinton and other Democrats, Justice Department and political figures, who he claims conspired against him to launch a meritless FBI investigation into potential collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. The suit claims the defendants’ actions amounted to a racketeering conspiracy, entitling Trump to millions of dollars in damages.
The defendants haven’t filed substantive responses to the case yet, but some have ridiculed the lawsuit.
A New Jersey-based attorney for Trump, Alina Habba, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
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