Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on April 26, 2019
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You may have heard the expression that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” So, what exactly does that make people who decide to handle their own cases in divorce court? The Latin term “res ipsa loquitur” comes to mind. Although it’s a doctrine that normally applies to tort law, the fact that “the thing speaks for itself” says it all.
When you decide to represent yourself in court, you become a pro se litigant. In some cases, ending your marriage might seem simple enough. Fill out a few forms and “poof,” your life returns to single status.
No doubt that there are select cases where going to court without a lawyer appears cost-effective. Unfortunately, chances are that you’ll wind up wishing that you did retain a legal advocate. It’s akin to thinking you can stitch up your bleeding finger and not expect a permanent scar.
It’s a lesson you don’t want to learn. Experienced divorce lawyers easily attest to intricacies in family law. Besides that, most benefit from having someone else negotiate on their behalf., After all, ending a marriage represents a highly emotionally charged event.
In the meantime, a recent Court of Appeals case might interest you. A pro se litigant attempted to call for a judge’s recusal. She thought the court expressed bias in stating “Then maybe you should have hired a lawyer to represent you.”
Maybe You Should Have Hired a Lawyer
The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville decided Ueber v. Ueber at the beginning of 2019. Ronna Lynn Ueber had legal counsel during her divorce trial ending her marriage with Anthony James Ueber. The trial court granted the divorce in April 2018.
In June of 2018, the attorneys representing Ronna during the divorce moved to withdraw as her lawyers for failing to pay them. Additionally, the attorneys sought the court’s permission to apply funds already in hand to outstanding invoices and expenses. Also, the lawyers requested a money judgment for the balance of unpaid attorneys’ fees.
Meanwhile, the plaintiff expressed displeasure with the court’s ruling in her divorce and sought a reversal of particular aspects of the divorce decree.
When her attorneys decided to go after her for legal fees, Ronna chose to represent herself. As part of court proceedings, she attempted to enter exhibits into evidence. At one point, the judge asked her a question pertaining to the rules of evidence. The plaintiff admitted that she was not familiar with the rule.
The trial court responded to the acknowledgment by stating that “Then maybe you should have hired a lawyer to represent you.” Ronna found the judge’s admonishment offensive and argued that it showed the court had a “profound lack of patience” and an “extreme bias” towards her.
Ultimately, the trial court granted Ronna’s former attorneys unpaid legal fees in the amount of nearly $102K. Ronna filed a motion for the court’s recusal a couple of months after the recusal hearing.
Trial Court Denied Recusal
Rona’s request for the court’s recusal focused on six issues as follows:
Loss of impartiality
Violation of plaintiffs constitutionally guaranteed rights, including due process which includes a right to be heard, a right to present evidence, and a right to witness testimony, a right to sufficiency of process
Use of threat of force, oppression under color of law to deprive plaintiff’s rights and privileges secured by the Constitution of the United States
Violation of Judicial Canons
As far as Ronna was concerned, the trial court treated her in an intimidating matter. Also, Ronna expressed discontent that the court failed to report what she viewed as her former attorney’s misconduct. Among other things, she accused the judge of “practicing law from the bench” and showing bias against her because she decided to represent herself.
The trial court denied recusal and in doing so pointed out that Ronna offered no proof supporting her allegations. Instead, it seemed that the real basis for the recusal motion was just that Ronna didn’t like the court’s ruling.
When the plaintiff appealed, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. One of the key issues involved whether the judge exhibited bias or prejudice towards the wife. Ronna seemed to think this was the case when the court suggested she needed a lawyer.
In citing prior case law, the Court of Appeals that “To merit disqualification, the prejudice must be of a personal character, directed at the litigant, and stem from an extrajudicial source resulting in an opinion on the merits on some basis other than what the judge learned from participation in the case.”
The fact that Ronna did not like the judge’s prior rulings did not establish bias. The Court of Appeals reviewed the lower court’s record of the case. It appeared that the trial court’s statements were taken out of context and were made after several warnings to the plaintiff. The fact that the judge was irritated or exasperated did not constitute a reason for recusal.