Profiling case against Arizona sheriff put on hold after lawman seeks to remove case's judge


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PHOENIX — An embattled Arizona sheriff 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 Maricopa County Sheriff Joe 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's reported to have said the judge didn't want Arpaio to win re-election, though it's 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 say the request is nothing more than a stall tactic. "The timing of this motion is suspect," ACLU attorney Cecillia Wang said.

They say Arpaio requested the probe and now wants to use it as justification to delay the 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.

Snow has requested legal briefings on the matter, which are expected early next month.

It's not clear when a ruling will be made, but the request puts all litigation in the profiling case on hold until such time.

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.

Snow has said Arpaio launched another secret investigation seeking to show the judge and U.S. Justice Department were conspiring against him. The judge also has said Arpaio's office believed someone undermined the judicial selection process in the profiling case — even though judges are picked randomly.

The sheriff's attorneys say the investigations weren't related to the contempt hearings.

Since the verdict two years ago, 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 isn't 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.

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