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Mystery deepens after judge removes herself from more cases

January 19, 2017 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The mystery behind unusual happenings in a federal judge’s courtroom is deepening: The judge has removed herself from more than two dozen cases since a trial she presided over abruptly ended last month, court records show.

The chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana has transferred at least 27 cases from U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi to another judge since late December, according to an Associated Press review of court records. The one-page orders don’t explain why Minaldi asked for those civil and criminal cases to be reassigned.

Judges occasionally recuse themselves from cases but typically cite a reason, such as avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it’s unusual for a judge to surrender a batch of unrelated cases without explanation.

“It usually signals some sort of personal or family problem,” said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

On Dec. 6, a criminal trial in Minaldi’s Lake Charles courtroom was cut short without explanation before a jury could be picked to hear the case against a man charged with producing child pornography and crossing state lines to have sex with a minor. A docket entry indicates the man’s trial was adjourned less than an hour after it began.

Chief Judge Dee Drell said in an order that he was “exercising (his) prerogative” in canceling that trial, removing Minaldi from the case and reassigning it to himself. A jury in Drell’s Alexandria courtroom — about 100 miles away — convicted the defendant Jan. 4.

Minaldi hasn’t responded to several requests for comment over the past few months, including one left with her office Thursday.

Court officials denied an AP reporter’s request for a copy of the transcript for the Dec. 6 proceedings in Minaldi’s courtroom. A “standing order” adopted by the court district holds that transcripts of jury selection are automatically sealed to protect the privacy of prospective jurors.

Other routine assignments for Minaldi also ended last year without any reasons publicly disclosed.

In February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man’s fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents unsealed at the AP’s request showed that even basic requirements — like telling jurors the burden of proof lies with prosecutors, not the defense — weren’t followed.

In March 2016, Judge Drell removed Minaldi from the Justice Department’s high-profile criminal cases against a south Louisiana sheriff and several subordinates. No explanation was given, though the order came four days after Minaldi abruptly adjourned a hearing to accept guilty pleas by two sheriff’s deputies. The two deputies wound up pleading guilty later that same day before another judge in Lafayette, more than 70 miles away.

Minaldi was scheduled to preside over several sentencing hearings in the week after the child pornography trial was canceled on Dec. 6. Those hearings were postponed, and the cases are among those reassigned to another judge.

Minaldi has issued orders in other cases since the Dec. 6 trial. On Dec. 19, for instance, she refused to disqualify herself from an inmate’s civil lawsuit against a police task force.

The inmate claimed Minaldi couldn’t be impartial because she had been arrested in Lake Charles and later pleaded guilty in February 2014 to a drunken driving charge. Minaldi said the inmate’s arguments have no merit.