NILES -- A South Bend-area woman will have to wait a little while longer to see what will happen with the criminal contempt charge brought against her for swearing inside Niles South County Courthouse in early December.
Larue Ford, 49, appeared with her attorneys today in Berrien County Trial Court in Niles for a contempt of court hearing before Berrien County Trial Judge Dennis Wiley. The hearing ended after just 10 minutes, with Wiley allowing Ford and her attorneys to have the case reviewed by Berrien County Chief Trial Judge Thomas Nelson.
Wiley had charged her with criminal contempt Dec. 4 when she was overheard swearing in the county clerk's office inside the courthouse. She had been there to clear up old unpaid traffic tickets, including a reinstatement fee imposed by the county clerk.
Ford posted bond that day but ended up spending 11 days in jail, from Dec. 18-28, when Wiley changed her bond from 10 percent of $5,000, or $500, to $5,000 cash because she couldn't provide a permanent address. An emergency appeal by her attorneys to then-Berrien County Chief Trial Judge Alfred Butzbaugh Dec. 28 resulted in the bond being reduced back to the lower amount and Ford being released from jail.
Ford attorney Miriam Aukerman argued today before Wiley that he should be disqualified from the case. Aukerman is with the West Michigan office of the American Civil Liberties Union in Grand Rapids and is representing Ford along with Kalamazoo attorney John Targowski.
She said it wasn't a matter of whether Wiley is biased or prejudiced in the case, but the perception that he might be biased or acting improperly.
She said witnesses to the alleged swearing incident were "subordinates" of Wiley's and that Wiley should disqualify himself from hearing the case because he took the statements as an affront to the court.
"The court took the statements as an affront to the court and the court shouldn't act if it is the one affronted," she said.
She also cited court cases from the Michigan Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court in support of her position.
The Court of Appeals case stated that a contempt charge should be tried by a different judge if the original judge sees himself as the victim of the contempt. Two Supreme Court cases ended with similar rulings that a judge cannot hear a case in which he might have an interest.
Wiley took a different view and denied Ford's motion for him to disqualify himself. He said South County Courthouse employees are not his subordinates or his employees but rather employees of the trial court and the county.
He said he had no personal interest in what court employees say and also dismissed the court rulings Aukerman cited. He said it was "incorrect" that the court was the recipient of the contemptuous behavior and that Ford's alleged swearing was not directed at him.
At the same time he denied the motion to disqualify himself from hearing the contempt charge, Wiley cited Michigan court rulings that allow for a judge to have his decision reviewed by another judge.
In this case, Nelson, who is the new chief trial judge after Butzbaugh's retirement at the end of the year, will either review Wiley's decision himself or assign it to another judge. A date for the next hearing has not been set.
Tarnowski said afterward he was not surprised by Wiley's ruling and called it "good news" for his client that another judge would be reviewing the case. Aukerman said she believes the impartiality question is one reason why Wiley's decision should be reviewed as well as the considerable media attention the case has received.
Ford said afterward that the case has taken a big toll on her and her family and she would like to see the case finished soon. While she has relatives in the South Bend area, she's currently staying with a sister in Chicago.
She said the job she was applying for when she was getting her traffic tickets cleared up in early December is still hers when the contempt matter is settled. While she has a degree in social work and wants to get back to that profession, the job she will be taking is to drive a commercial vehicle.