By JJ Hensley
June 28, 2012
A hearing that threatened to delay a long-running racial profiling lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office became less ominous after Sheriff Joe Arpaio decided not to challenge a federal judge's impartiality.
The hearing in U.S. District Court Friday was set to determine whether U.S. District Judge Murray Snow had a conflict of interest in hearing the case because his brother-in-law is among 250 partners in a law firm that represents a class of Latino residents claiming the Sheriff's Office engages in racial profiling.
Snow's brother-in-law, Keith Teel, is an insurance, patent and product-liability litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of Covington & Burling LLP, according to court documents. Attorneys from that firm's San Francisco office represent the named defendants in a 41/2-year-old racial profiling lawsuit against Arpaio's office. The firm also represents any additional residents who joined the matter after a December ruling by Snow made the case a class-action suit open to any Latino residents stopped by sheriff's deputies since 2007.
The case will be decided by Snow in a bench trial, as opposed to a trial before a jury. It is scheduled to begin in late July. The suit does not request monetary awards but seeks to change the way Arpaio's deputies enforce immigration laws.
The potential conflict emerged in court documents earlier this month, when attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a letter with Snow assuring the judge that his brother-in-law would not have any involvement with the case and that Teel would not benefit financially from any costs or fees Snow might award to the firm if the plaintiffs prevail.
Snow wrote in court documents that he considered withdrawing from the case in 2010 after attorneys from the Phoenix firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, which also represents The Arizona Republic, withdrew from the case and were replaced by lawyers from Covington & Burling. Snow concluded that Teel's distance from the case nullified any potential conflict.
Arpaio on Wednesday said he thought Snow would give the case an impartial hearing. He said he will not ask Snow to recuse himself unless something significant emerges at Friday's hearing.
"I'm confident in this judge and the judicial system, and I'm not asking for the judge to be removed from this case," Arpaio said. "In my opinion, this is just a ploy by the plaintiffs to delay the trial."
The case was originally filed in December 2007 and has been subject to several delays.
Last year, Snow awarded more than $90,000 in court costs and attorney's fees to offset the costs of depositions that had to be taken again after the Sheriff's Office produced thousands of records that it initially said were not available.
In 2009, Mary H. Murguia, the judge initially assigned to the case, recused herself after the Sheriff's Office pointed out that Murguia's twin sister, Janet, had made disparaging remarks about Arpaio and his office in her role as the leader of National Council of La Raza, a Latino and immigrant advocacy group.