The federal appeals panel that removed U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin from the NYPD stop-and-frisk case last month for an appearance of partiality refused to let her challenge its order Wednesday, but said she hadn't acted in an unethical or biased manner.
"We emphasize at the outset that we make no findings of misconduct, actual bias or actual partiality on the part of Judge Scheindlin," the panel wrote, calling her a "long-serving and distinguished jurist" and striking a markedly different tone from the Oct. 31 order accusing her of violating ethical canons.
The three-judge panel's decision to not hear from Scheindlin was technically a defeat for the judge in the complicated legal struggle, leaving her disqualified from a case in which she found a pattern of constitutional violations in NYPD street stops and named a monitor to oversee reforms.
But lawyers for the judge and for plaintiffs said that by clearing Scheindlin of actual partiality, the court effectively doomed an effort by the Bloomberg administration to have her ruling vacated for bias -- a move that would circumvent Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's plan to let her order take effect by ending the city's appeal when he takes office.
"I'm quite relieved and so is she," said Burt Neuborne, Scheindlin's lawyer, adding, "The city argued that she was biased. Now that the panel has made clear that they were in no sense intimating that, the city's strategy is dead in the water."
"This new ruling shows how much the city overreached with its motion to vacate Judge Scheindlin's rulings," said Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The time has now come for the Bloomberg administration to recognize that it cannot stop reform of stop and frisk."
The city's law department, which blasted the judge for bias over the weekend, said in a terse statement, "The court's ruling removing Judge Scheindlin from the case was correct."
In its October order, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel stayed Scheindlin's ruling until a full appeal is heard in March, and said it was removing the judge for "running afoul" of impartiality rules by using an earlier suit to have the case steered to her in 2007 and giving news interviews responding to city attacks on her neutrality.
In Wednesday's ruling, the panel said it was not finding any misbehavior, but the standard was whether "a reasonable observer could question the impartiality of the judge."
A new judge, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres, has been assigned to the case for now. Neuborne said that if de Blasio withdraws the city's appeal, as he has promised, Torres could end up implementing Scheindlin's decision.
The plaintiffs have asked the full court to overturn the panel's stay, and Neuborne said Scheindlin's request to intervene and be reinstated is also before the full Second Circuit.
With the city's motion to vacate her decision also undecided, lawyers cautioned that the case could still take unexpected twists.