Island County District Court Judge Bill Hawkins refused to recuse himself from a criminal case involving his wife’s boss, even though the prosecutor asked him to voluntarily step down.
Hawkins explained that the prosecutor’s motion contained many factual errors about his wife’s employment.
“I think a lot of this is much ado about nothing,” Hawkins said.
Linda Gipson, chief nursing officer at Whidbey General Hospital, appeared in District Court with her attorney Monday afternoon for a hearing on the recusal request.
Gipson is facing a charge of fourth-degree assault for allegedly choking or hurting a patient while she was in four-point restraints because of mental health issues.
The incident was reported on May 13.
The alleged victim, several nurses who witnessed the incident and Gipson offered differing accounts of what exactly occurred, according to court documents.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, who attended Monday’s hearing, said that his office’s recusal request was unusual, but that the entire case has become unexpectedly complex. It’s a simple gross misdemeanor case, but apparently is going to involve expert witnesses and battles over subpoenas for hospital records.
Deputy Prosecutor Jacqueline Lawrence filed a motion last month requesting that Hawkins voluntarily recuse himself because his wife works at Whidbey General Hospital.
Lawrence said she made the request out of an abundance of caution and would have preferred that Hawkins, the elected judge, preside in the case if it wasn’t for the concern about an appearance of fairness or partiality.
“There is no evidence of actual bias, nor is that the state’s concern,” she said.
In her motion, Lawrence pointed out that it was Hawkins himself who first brought up the concern about his wife’s employment. During a Sept. 30 hearing, Hawkins explained that his wife worked under Gipson and that she first informed him of the alleged assault at the hospital prior to the filing of charges, according to the motion asking for the judge to recuse himself.
At the time, Hawkins said he didn’t know “if it would be appropriate” for him to hear the case as a trial judge, according to the motion.
Lawrence also wrote that hospital officials’ statements published in the South Whidbey Record “have unequivocally established the hospital administration’s official position that the defendant is ‘innocent.’ ”
Hospital CEO Tom Tomasino also attended Monday’s hearing.
Gipson’s attorney, Andrew Schwarz of the Seattle firm Schwarz-Garrison, opposed Hawkins’ recusal, citing case law. He said a recusal is necessary only when there’s some evidence of actual bias, which nobody is proposing.
Hawkins cited factual reasons, as opposed to legal arguments, for his decision not to step down.
He explained that Lawrence’s assertion that his wife is part of the hospital administration is simply incorrect, as is the claim that Gipson presented her with an award last year.
“They have never worked in close proximity and rarely have contact,” he said.
Hawkins explained that his wife, a registered nurse, had been working on an information-technology project at the hospital, but remained in the nurses’ union and is now back to working with patients.
Hawkins said he has never met Gipson nor any of the witnesses in the case.
Hawkins conceded that he may have considered recusing himself if his wife worked in hospital administration, but that is not the case.
Afterward, Banks said he was relieved that Hawkins’ wife isn’t in the hospital administration. He said Lawrence had to rely on information from witnesses, and what information she could find on the internet, to try to figure out what Hawkins’ wife does at the hospital.
He pointed out that Hawkins made the disclosure about his wife and then “just left it hanging out there.”
Banks said Lawrence emailed the District Court and asked for a telephonic conference with the judge and the defense to discuss the issue, but the request was rejected.