Backpage Execs Ask 9th Circuit to Force Trial Judge’s Recusal

Backpage Execs Ask 9th Circuit to Force Trial Judge’s Recusal

LOS ANGELES—About a month after federal Judge Susan Brnovich refused to step down from the trial of Backpage co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the defendants are keeping up the fight. 

According to court documents, lawyers for the indicted Backpage execs have asked the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to step in, and force Brnovich to recuse herself.

Lacey, Larkin and several other former executives face a 93-count indictment stemming from their 2018 arrest, alleging that they used the site to facilitate prostitution, and also laundered what prosecutors say are millions of dollars in revenue from the illegal online activities.

Their case is set to go to trial in April of 2021, after several delays caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But after the first two judges in the U.S. District Court for Arizona recused themselves, Lacey and Larkin in October demanded that the third judge — who assumed the case in March of 2019 — step down as well.

The judge is married to Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who has been an outspoken crusader against “sex trafficking,” and even published pamphlet naming Backpage as a forum for that type of criminal activity. In their court filing demanding Judge Brnovich’s recusal, they also cite public statements by her husband expressing his desire to prosecute the Backpage execs personally.

But in her 14-page ruling last month in which she refused to step down, the judge wrote that she “is an independent person from AG Brnovich, and the average person on the street would not reasonably believe that the Court would approach this case in a partial manner.” 

That certainly wasn’t good enough for Lacey and Larkin. The day after Brnovich handed down her ruling, Lacey published a broadside attacking the judge on the site Frontpage Confidential, which he and Larkin own.

But the online screed was not the end of their battle against Brnovich. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court clerk, Molly C. Dwyer, posted a document notifying the Backpage legal team that its appeal of Brnovich’s decision has been received. The clerk did not, however, give a time frame for when, or if, the Ninth Circuit would make a decision on the appeal.

Photos by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office

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