Turns out the fourth time was NOT the charm.
As FITSNews predicted earlier this week, it looks like there’s going to be a fifth judge assigned to hear Alex Murdaugh‘s arguments as to why Richland County is not beholden to the Freedom of Information Act … when it comes to him, anyway.
On Monday, Judge Michelle Childs became the fourth federal judge — in seven days — assigned to a complaint filed Feb. 28 by Murdaugh’s attorneys state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin seeking to stop any further release and publication of their client’s recorded jail house phone calls.
Why so many judges in so few days? Bear with me …
In his motion for recusal, Murdaugh noted that Childs “would not be influenced by any bias or improper concern. It is important, however, that there be no possible pretext for allegations damaging public confidence in the legal basis for the Court’s decisions or the integrity of the Court.”
On Feb. 23, FITSNews and Murdaugh Murders Podcast posted transcripts and excerpts from 11 of the more than 100 calls Murdaugh has made since being booked at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, also known as Richland County Detention Center, where he has been held in lieu of $7 million bond since Oct. 16.
The calls gave the public a closer look at Murdaugh’s machinations from behind bars and, as it turns out, directly contradicted many of the claims that have been made by his attorneys in an effort to gain his release from jail.
In a Monday evening report, after learning that Childs had been assigned to the case, FITSNews questioned whether her connections to Murdaugh and his attorneys would present a conflict of interest — or at least the appearance of impropriety.
Before Childs’ appointment, according to Monk, there was judge David Norton of Charleston (he was also assigned to the case Monday, but before Childs). Norton replaced judge Mary Geiger Lewis (who was assigned the case last Wednesday). Lewis replaced judge Bruce Howe Hendricks of Greenville.
No explanation was apparently given for these reassignments.
Are you sensing some shenanigans? Keep reading …
One possible reason for the shuffling, might be that judges must remain impartial — and any appearance to the contrary (such as previous relationships and other connections to the parties in the case … which there are, according to Monk) is a problem.
The potential conflicts FITSNews cited included Childs’ connection NPStrategy, the public relations company that helped Murdaugh (attempt to) put a shine on his name after his wife and son were murdered this past summer is also the firm that helped judge Childs in her bid to become the next Supreme Court nominee.
NPStrat is wholly owned by the powerful law firm Nexsen Pruet, which used to employ Childs.
Then there is the tight South Carolina Democratic political circle of which NPStrategy, Murdaugh, Childs and Harpootlian are members.
Should involvement in a political party matter in this situation?
Yes. South Carolina is a very Republican state, which — some might argue — places Democrats into much closer quarters, where they would ostensibly form tighter relationships.
And finally, according to sources, Childs’ campaign for Supreme Court nomination was funded, at least in large part, by the South Carolina Association of Justice — whose president in 2016 was … Alex Murdaugh.
On Tuesday, Childs issued an order acknowledging that some might see the connections pointed out by FITSNews as conflicts — but noted that she hadn’t worked at Nexsen Pruet for more than 20 years and that she never knowingly used NPStrategy.
She also introduced an additional potential conflict, which was a credit to her transparency.
”Moreover,” she noted in the order, ”a current law clerk was employed in the office of Plaintiff’s counsel, Richard A. Harpootlian P.A., before starting her judicial clerkship.”
She invited anyone who feared a conflict to request her recusal by March 11.
So Alex Murdaugh did.
“Intense public interest in Plaintiff’s case and the resulting media coverage create a very real danger that Judge Childs’s tangential and irrelevant connections with Plaintiff and his counsel will be portrayed in a manner creating an ‘appearance of impropriety’ even in the eyes of reasonable members of the public, thereby eroding the confidence in judicial integrity.”
Murdaugh makes a suggestion: “This can and should be avoided by recusal and random reassignment to a judge having no alleged connection to Plaintiff or his counsel.”
And there’s a footnote.
“Chief Judge Gregory of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit could assign this case to an out-of-state district judge.”
While this is a good suggestion given the tentacles of Murdaugh’s influence and the generational complacency of the judicial system when it comes to his family name, one has to question — by nature of who his attorneys are — whether this was the play all along.
Five judges in less than two weeks?
That has to be a record.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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