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Timely Motion for Change of Judge Strips a Judge's Authority to Rule on Subsequent Motions

ABSTRACT: The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a Circuit Court judge's failure to disqualify himself and grant a motion for a change of judge, exceeding his authority. The court, in its holding, affirmed "the right to disqualify a judge is a keystone of our judicial system, and Missouri courts follow a liberal rule construing it."

In Worth v. Roden, the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals, held that when a timely motion for change of judge under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 51.05 is filed, the trial judge is “divested of authority to take any action other than ruling on motions already under submission and granting the change.”

Missouri Supreme Court Rule 51.05 provides in relevant part:

(a) A change shall be ordered in any civil action upon the timely filing of a written application therefore by a party…The application need not allege or prove any cause for such change of judge and need not be verified. (b) …the application must be filed within 60 days from service of process or 30 days from the designation of the trial judge, whichever time is longer.

Shannon Roden appealed following the circuit court’s judgment disqualifying her as a candidate in the primary election for the Jefferson County Collector of Revenue’s officer. At the circuit court level, Michelle Worth filed a petition seeking to disqualify Roden as a candidate on the August primary ballot for two reasons: (1) Worth alleged Roden failed to timely file an affidavit of bondability; and (2) Roden has unpaid personal property taxes. Upon the filing of the petition and other pleadings, Roden timely filed a motion for change of judge under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 51.05. However, the circuit court judge denied the requested change.

After the circuit court denied the request to change judge, the court went forward with the case. A trial on the merits was conducted and the court entered its judgment. The circuit court ruled Worth failed to present sufficient evidence to support Roden’s personal property tax delinquency. However, the circuit court found that Roden failed to timely file her affidavit of bondability and ordered her name be stricken from the August primary ballot.

Roden filed an expedited appeal the very next day pursuant to RsMo § 115.551 allowing the court of appeals to take appropriate action in considering time-sensitive election challenges such as this. Roden raised three points on appeal: (1) the circuit court erred in disqualifying her from the ballot (2) Worth failed to prove she had standing to challenge Roden’s qualifications (3) the circuit court erroneously denied her motion for change of judge. The substantive issues (points 1 and 2) were not reached because the court of appeals agreed with Roden’s third point.

Regarding the request for change of judge, Worth argued the circuit court judge properly denied the request. The court of appeals, however, rejected Worth’s arguments holding that prior decisions did not support the judge’s decision to deny the timely motion for change. “Once Roden submitted her timely filed Rule 51.05 motion, the trial judge only had authority to rule on the previously submitted motion to dismiss and then grant the change of judge…the trial judge lacked authority to conduct the trial and enter judgment.”

At the end of the day, this decision by the Court of Appeals reaffirms the right of parties to disqualify a judge in Missouri courts without any reason or cause, if timely performed. The only motions a circuit court judge has the power to rule on after a timely filed request to change judge under Rule 51.05 are ones which were filed prior to the timely request for change of judge.

* Garrett Hurst, Summer Law Clerk, assisted in the research and drafting of this post. Hurst is a rising 3L student at Saint Louis University School of Law.