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In re Children of Crystal G.

Supreme Court of Maine

January 24, 2019

IN RE CHILDREN OF CRYSTAL G.

          Submitted On Briefs: January 17, 2019

          Rory A. McNamara, Esq., Drake Law, LLC, Berwick, for appellant mother

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Hunter C. Umphrey, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services

          Panel: ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          PER CURIAM

         [¶1] Crystal G. appeals from a judgment entered by the District Court (Skowhegan, Benson, J.) terminating her parental rights to four of her children pursuant to 22 M.R.S. §4055(1)(A)(1)(a) and (B)(2)(a), (b)(i)-(ii), (iv) (2017).[1]She contends that her counsel at the termination hearing was constitutionally ineffective in (1) failing to move for the trial judge to recuse on the ground that he also oversaw the domestic violence docket in which the mother participated and (2) failing to move for further findings of fact after the court adopted verbatim most of the Department of Health and Human Services's proposed findings in its judgment terminating her parental rights. The mother further contends that some of the court's findings are not supported by the record and that the court erred in making a credibility determination concerning one of the mother's witnesses. We affirm the judgment.

         A. Recusal

         [¶2] Contrary to the mother's contention that her counsel was per se ineffective in failing to move for the trial judge's recusal in the termination case because he also oversaw the domestic violence docket[2] in which she was a participant, recusal in that circumstance is not automatically required in order to avoid the appearance of bias.[3] See M. Code Jud. Conduct R. 2.11(A) ("[a] judge shall . . . recuse ... in any proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned"); State v. Atwood, 2010 ME 12, ¶ 21, 988 A.2d 981.

         [¶3] As an initial matter, before the mother testified at the hearing her counsel did move for the judge to recuse on the ground that evidence the court heard in the termination proceeding might prejudice her in her criminal case. The court declined to recuse based on evidence it had not yet heard, ruling that if recusal were required at all it would be required in the criminal matter, not the child protective matter. See Atwood, 2010 ME 12, ¶ 20, 988A.2d98l (stating that "recusal is a matter within the broad discretion of the trial court" (quotation marks omitted)).

         [¶4] In any event, we have recognized that "rulings against a litigant or knowledge gained by a judge in a prior or related court proceeding, including impressions of a litigant's personal history or credibility, are not sufficient grounds to recuse a judge in a subsequent matter." In re Nadeau, 2018 ME 18, ¶ 15, 178 A.3d 495. Absent a showing that the trial judge in this case could not be impartial, or reasonably be seen to be impartial, because of particular information he had learned in the criminal matter, the mother's "mere belief that [the] judge might not be completely impartial is insufficient to warrant recusal." Atwood, 2010 ME 12, ¶ 21, 988 A.2d 981 (quotation marks omitted). Because the mother's argument rests on an incorrect assertion that the trial judge in this case was required to recuse solely because he also oversaw her case in the domestic violence docket, she has not demonstrated that her counsel was deficient in failing to seek recusal on that ground and therefore has "failed to make a prima facie showing of ineffective assistance of counsel as is required."[4] In re Child of Kimberlee C, 2018 ME 134, ¶ 6, 194 A.3d 925; see In re Tyrel L., 2017 ME 212, ¶ 8, 172 A.3d 916.

         B. Factual Findings

         [¶5] The mother next asserts that her counsel was ineffective in failing to move for further findings because (1) the court's findings, largely adopting those proposed by the Department, demonstrate that it did not exercise independent judgment in making its findings; and (2) certain of the court's findings were not supported by the record.

         [¶6] We have said that "[a]lthough a verbatim adoption of the language of a proposed order or an adoption absent material change is disfavored because it would suggest that the court has not applied its independent judgment in making its findings and conclusions, courts may properly request and consider proposed orders from parties in crafting an order." In re Zoey K, 2017 ME 159, ¶ 6, 167 A.3d 1260 (alteration and quotation marks omitted); see In re Marpheen C, 2002 ME 170, ¶ 7, 812 A.2d 972 ("[W]e recognize that fact-finding can be aided by parties submitting and trial courts considering and utilizing, where appropriate, draft findings of fact offered by either side. The key question is whether the court findings reflect the application of judgment by the court, and not simply one of the parties.").

         [¶7] Here, the court requested and received proposed findings from both parties. Although the court adopted most of the Department's proposed findings verbatim, we are satisfied that the alterations in the court's termination order-most significantly the credibility determinations it made concerning particular witnesses and the mother herself-demonstrate "that the judgment is the result of the application of independent judicial thought to the process of making ...


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