University of Miami Law Review


Federal appellate courts have the authority to order reassignment of cases to different district judges as part of their supervisory authority over the district courts within their circuits. This Article examines the categories of cases in which the Eleventh Circuit has ordered reassignment to different district court judges on remand and explains the rationale underlying reassignment in each category. The more understandable cases address both the appearance and the presence of bias or impropriety by the original trial judge. This Article describes the general principles underlying the Eleventh Circuit’s reassignment practices and then questions why reassignment is necessary in cases involving government breaches of plea agreements where none of the usual reasons underlying reassignment seem to exist.

In United States v. Torkington, the Eleventh Circuit extended the principle underlying reassignment beyond cases involving an erroneous refusal of the trial judge to recuse himself or herself. While the Torkington test addresses problems regarding the original trial judge’s bias, appearance of bias, recalcitrance, or missteps, there is an interesting deviation from these bases for reassignment in cases involving breached plea agreements. Relying on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Santobello v. New York, the Eleventh Circuit holds that the available remedies in a case where the prosecution breaches a plea agreement by making sentencing arguments or recommendations it promised not to make are either for the defendant to be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea or for the case to be remanded for resentencing by a different judge. The Eleventh Circuit reasoned that the trial judge who heard the prosecutor’s improper sentencing argument cannot un-hear that argument when the case is remanded for resentencing. Yet, trial judges (and even lay jurors) are routinely presumed to be able to disregard improper evidence and arguments.

The rationale for reassignment in breached plea agreement cases remains curiously unexplored and seemingly at odds with the rationales underlying reassignment in other scenarios. This Article suggests that the Eleventh Circuit may wish to consider formalizing its reassignment practices and criteria by local rule.