New judge will hear Tennessee man's murder appeal after first judge said he prefers Texas law

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A new judge will hear a Tennessee defendant’s appeal of his murder conviction after the first judge described the state’s post-conviction process as a game and said he prefers Texas procedures.

The Tennessee Supreme Court vacated the decision of Judge Lee Coffee in the case of Brice Cook and remanded to a new judge. The court did not, however, require Coffee’s recusal in all future post-conviction cases.

The Legal Profession Blog posted a summary and linked to the Aug. 25 decision.

Coffee had presided over Cook’s retrial and was also assigned to hear the petition for post-conviction relief. Cook had asserted ineffective assistance of counsel based on several grounds, including an alleged failure to communicate a plea deal in a timely manner.

Coffee said any formal plea bargain appeared to be “nonexistent,” and the two lawyers who represented Cook at the retrial were “two of the most preeminent lawyers in Memphis, in Shelby County, Tennessee. Two of the most preeminent lawyers in the United States of America. Two of the most preeminent lawyers in the world.”

Coffee said “it’s almost absolutely laughable” for a new lawyer to assert ineffective assistance, “sitting back as a Monday morning quarterback and evaluating their performance hindsight.”

Coffee said he had practiced law in Houston for eight years in which there are 23 felony courts. During that time, he saw only three or four post-conviction petitions in all 23 courts. “But it’s part of the game—and I do use the word game—that goes on in Tennessee, goes on in Shelby County, Tennessee,” Coffee said.

In Tennessee, a person who is convicted after receiving excellent representation will nonetheless assert that their lawyers did “an absolutely horrible job,” Coffee said. “It is almost painful when lawyers start attacking other lawyers,” he said.

Coffee said Cook’s trial lawyers “provided excellent representation” and denied the petition for post-conviction relief.

The Tennessee Supreme Court said Coffee was obligated to recuse himself because his comments would cause a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality. No recusal motion was required, the court said.

“This decision should serve as an unmistakable admonition to this judge, and all other Tennessee judges, to refrain from such inappropriate comments in future cases,” the court said.

The state supreme court said it has “no reason to doubt” that Coffee will fulfill his obligations in future cases. If, however, the court finds that a judge “has habitually made inappropriate comments that call into reasonable question the judge’s impartiality in a particular category of cases,” the judge will be disqualified from all future cases in that category, the opinion said.

“The circumstances of this appeal placed it only inches away from the threshold that must be crossed for this court to invoke that extraordinary remedy,” the state supreme court said.

Coffee did not immediately respond to an ABA Journal voicemail.

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