Nichols v. Alley – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In Nichols v. Alley, 71 F.3d 347 (10th Cir. 1995) the defendant was charged in connection with a domestic terrorist attack that killed 169 people and "inflicted massive damage" to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 71 F.3d at 349.

The chambers of many trial judges were damaged, including those of the judge assigned at random to preside over the case. Mr. Nichols filed a motion to recuse the trial judge, and the Tenth Circuit agreed on appeal that recusal was mandated under the federal statute that parallels Maryland's Rule 1.2. Id. at 350-51; see 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) (2013).

The Tenth Circuit noted how "extremely fact driven" such cases are, Nichols, 71 F.3d at 351, and that they "'must be judged on their unique facts and circumstances more than by comparison to situations considered in prior jurisprudence.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Jordan, 49 F.3d 152, 157 (5th Cir. 1995)).

The court concluded that the specific circumstances were so extraordinary that a reasonable person could have doubts about the judge's impartiality:

Judge Alley's courtroom and chambers were one block away from the epicenter of a massive explosion that literally rocked downtown Oklahoma City, heavily damaged the Murrah building, killed 169 people, and injured many others. The blast crushed the courthouse's glass doors, shattered numerous windows, ripped plaster from ceilings, dislodged light fixtures, showered floors with glass, damaged Judge Alley's courtroom and chambers, and injured a member of his staff, as well as other court personnel and their families. Based on these circumstances, we conclude that a reasonable person could not help but harbor doubts about the impartiality of Judge Alley. Because Judge Alley's "impartiality might reasonably be questioned" in the instant case, 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) mandates recusal. Id. at 352.