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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City public defenders office files over 200 motions to disqualify Judge Gloria Ochoa-Bruck from cases

Municipal Judge Gloria Ochoa-Bruck is photographed in front of Spokane County Superior Court on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

As of this month, more than 200 motions – filed on behalf of defendants accused of misdemeanors – have been filed to remove cases initially assigned to Municipal Court Judge Gloria Ochoa-Bruck.

The reason has not been disclosed.

After six months, Ochoa-Bruck denied multiple motions to have her cases shuffled to another judge on April 8.

The motions caused disruptions in the Municipal Court schedule and delayed cases.

In response, the judge has instructed public defenders to keep their clients informed and that the clients also must approve, with signatures, any motions seeking a different judge.

That move prompted Public Defender Nicholas Antush, who leads the city’s public defender office, to appeal the matter to Spokane County Superior Court.

Reached this week, Antush declined to comment about why his office is actively trying to pull cases from Ochoa-Bruck’s docket. Attorneys don’t have to disclose why they feel their clients can’t get a fair trial in front of a judge when filing an affidavit of prejudice.

The lack of specific reason for the blanket filings from the public defender’s office has left Ochoa-Bruck frustrated.

“This is unprecedented, as far as my knowledge,” she said . “I feel targeted.”

Ochoa-Bruck unseated former Municipal Court Judge Matt Antush in 2021. Matt Antush is the brother of Nicholas Antush.

Presiding Municipal Court Judge Kristin O’Sullivan declined to comment because the case is pending. Mayor Lisa Brown, who oversees the public defender’s office, also declined to comment.

City Attorney Mike Piccolo said the city prosecutor’s office has not moved to disqualify a judge, nor has it had a reason to, in at least the last decade.

Judges have an ethical obligation to recuse themselves in any cases where they have, or are perceived to have, a potential conflict of interest. Parties to a case can also file a motion to disqualify if they feel they cannot get a fair trial from a specific judge.

Those motions to disqualify are rare.

It’s even more rare for a blanket motion to be filed in all cases presided over by a specific judge.

Spokane County District Court Judge Aimee Maurer, in a statement, questioned how these blanket disqualifications are used.

While declining to talk about the Ochoa-Bruck issue, Maurer has been involved in other related efforts. She serves on a newly created trial court anti-racism task force that was formed after the Washington State Supreme Court directed judicial officers in 2020 to “identify and eliminate racism and discrimination” in the criminal justice system.

As for motions to disqualify a judge, Maurer questioned how affidavits of prejudice are being used.

“For example, if you have no objective evidence, such as a history of a judge being appealed and overturned, or reprimanded or disciplined, by the Judicial Conduct Commission, then what is left is only the subjective perception of a judge’s competency,” Maurer wrote. “We know subjective perceptions can be tainted by racism, explicit or implicit bias and discrimination.”

Maurer wrote she believes it’s worth examining whether affidavits of prejudice are filed more often against judges of color or along gender lines.

“Affidavits of prejudice are meant to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial, and for that purpose only,” Maurer wrote, “not to settle personal scores, political differences, and certainly not to encourage or further discrimination in the legal system.”

Client consent

While it’s unclear why the public defender’s office is filing these motions, the reason Ochoa-Bruck denied them is clear in her ruling.

She pointed to a difference in state law and court rules.

Ochoa-Bruck interpreted a law reading “when the judicial officer or one of the parties believes the parties cannot have an impartial trial or hearing before the judicial officer,” as excluding solely an attorney’s belief because they are not a party to the case.

District Court has a form that requires the defendant’s signature, while Superior Court statute allows a party to the case or an attorney to file the request.

Ochoa-Bruck argued that Municipal Court and District Court have identical language in their court rules, and therefore despite not having the same form as District Court, Municipal Court parties need to consent to filing the motion to disqualify.

The judge argued that public defenders are not informing their clients of the motions, citing multiple cases in which attorneys filed motions to disqualify within hours of the public defender’s office being assigned.

Ochoa-Bruck ruled on April 8 that she could require the defendant to sign the motion for disqualification and gave the public defender’s office 10 days to submit a signed motion.

Two days later, the public defender’s office asked Spokane County Superior Court to review Ochoa-Bruck’s decision.

In that request for review, the public defender’s office argued that the affidavit is a “procedural and tactical” decision that does not need the defendant’s approval, citing Superior Court rules.

“The right to file an Affidavit of Prejudice falls squarely in the discretion of a criminal attorney and may be used by trial counsel as a method to ensure a client receives a fair and impartial trial,” the request for review reads.

The public defender argued the Washington State Supreme Court has long allowed attorneys to file these motions without a client’s consent.

A Superior Court judge had yet to rule on the public defender’s request for review as of Thursday afternoon.