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January 18–25, 2001

city beat

Partial Fraction


Danielle Redden and Mark Rifkin have filed their own recusal motion to stop Judge McCaffery from presiding over their cases.

photo: Gwen Shaffer

Judge Seamus McCaffery squashes an effort to remove him from presiding over RNC protester trials.

In the face of allegations that he is not "impartial," Judge Seamus McCaffery is refusing to remove himself from presiding over three upcoming group trials for defendants arrested during the Republican National Convention. McCaffery accused the defendants of "judge shopping."

Public defender Bradley Bridge, who filed the recusal motion on behalf of 48 defendants scheduled to be tried in McCaffery’s courtroom, said he is "flabbergasted" by the judge’s decision to not even allow a hearing on the motion.

The recusal motion alleges that McCaffery cannot rule impartially because of comments he made less than two weeks prior to the RNC, conveying his intention to keep protesters locked up for the duration of the convention. A recusal is also in order, defendants contend, because McCaffery knows the content of the protests — including demonstrations against the criminal justice system — and has publicly criticized it.

McCaffery is the controversial and hard line magistrate who instituted Eagles court for rowdy fans at Veterans Stadium.

A hearing on the motion was scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 16. But when Bridge and his main witness arrived at court, McCaffery immediately announced there would be no hearing. McCaffery said that because he possesses no "specific information" about the defendants or the cases appearing before him, he concluded there is "absolutely no reason" to hold the hearing.

Bridge argued that while the judge may not know anything about the individuals arrested Aug. 1, he could "demonstrate that the court holds positions and attitudes that preclude impartiality on the RNC cases."

Bridge had hoped to call to the stand Kevin Vaughn, regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and former director for the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Vaughn planned to testify that, on July 19, both he and McCaffery served as panelists for a University of Pennsylvania Medical School forum on community health issues.

When a student questioned McCaffery about dealing with protesters at the RNC, Vaughn recalls McCaffery saying that he and other judges had met and developed a plan.

"What they planned on doing was hold the protesters who were arrested for three days until the convention was over," according to a written statement from Vaughn.

When Vaughn chimed in to say such tactics would be illegal, the statement continues, "Judge McCaffery said, ‘Yes, we can…The law gives us the ability to do that. That’s no problem.’ The students were so upset with his comments that [McCaffery] left."

In court on Tuesday, McCaffery denied having ever made any such remarks. He characterized Vaughn’s statement as "fabricated, frivolous and scurrilous."

"I neither knew about or spoke about a plan to incarcerate protesters until after the RNC," he said.

Rather, the judge said he described a plan agreed upon by the court, the District Attorney, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Public Defenders’ Office. That plan, McCaffery said, was "to expedite, not slow down, the incarceration of defendants" by busing them to Holmesburg Prison for on-the-spot trials.

Bridge is hoping to subpoena 45 Penn students who attended the med school forum. The Federal Education Privacy Act requires that university officials receive permission from students before releasing their names. Penn is in the process of contacting them.

McCaffery also objected to hearing the recusal motion on the grounds that he has already presided over five trials for RNC defendants.

He dismissed two cases when police officers could not identify the defendants; he sentenced two others to non-reporting probation; and a third defendant was given a 30 to 60 day jail sentence, two years probation and a $300 fine.

These rulings, the judge said, demonstrate "absence of bias."

McCaffery also questioned why the defendants requested that only he recuse himself, when five other judges had been assigned to RNC cases. His colleagues, McCaffery said, know just as much about the substance of the defendants’ protests as he does.

"It smacks of the most blatant judge shopping possible," he said. "We can’t allow that."

In response, pro se defendant Mark Rifkin said that if other judges had been members of the Fraternal Order of Police and had acted as Grand Marshall in a memorial motorcycle run for Daniel Faulkner — the police officer Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing — they would ask that they be removed.

"If we had those facts, absolutely we would be in their courtrooms fighting for recusals," Rifkin said.

He also pointed out that during a sentencing hearing for RNC defendant Scott Matthews, McCaffery commented, "You remember those of us that went off and served our country and put our lives on the line. There are those of us who care about it [the First Amendment]… Maybe what we should do, as far as community service, have him stand guard at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — the people that died to guarantee his rights."

Following Tuesday’s proceedings, Vaughn insisted he remembers McCaffery’s comments clearly.

"They made a major impact on me. My initial reaction was that I was stunned by his comments," he said, insisting that McCaffery never mentioned "the Holmesburg plan" during the Penn forum.

Vaughn’s deputy at DHHS, James Mengel, accompanied Vaughn to court Tuesday. Mengel said that, had McCaffery allowed a hearing, he was prepared to testify about a conversation he and Vaughn shared on July 20, the day after the forum.

"I recall Kevin describing his outrage at what the plan [for arrested protesters] seemed to be," Mengel said.

For McCaffery to "cut off" a hearing "demonstrates the truth of what Kevin Vaughn had to say and the animus James McCaffery holds for RNC protesters," Bridge said. "McCaffery is wrong to call Vaughn a liar and not allow him to testify in response."

Bridge plans to re-file his claim for recusal in both Motion and Superior courts.

Pro se defendants Rifkin and Danielle Redden filed a separate recusal motion on Jan. 16, which McCaffery has agreed to "look over." He will announce his decision on whether to hear that motion Jan. 30.

The next RNC case McCaffery is scheduled to preside over is a group misdemeanor trial scheduled for Jan 19. The activists were arrested for blocking the intersection of 16th and Callowhill Streets.

McCaffery is also slated to rule on a Jan. 25 group trial for RNC protesters arrested at the intersection of 15th Street and JFK Boulevard.

And on Feb. 2, McCaffery will preside over a high-profile case involving 17 RNC protesters arrested in a van driven by an undercover state trooper.

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