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Attempt to remove Trib judge rejected

His colleague says claims of bias are ‘fully without merit’

SHARE Attempt to remove Trib judge rejected

A renewed attempt by former managers of the Salt Lake Tribune to force the removal of the judge who has presided over the case for nearly four years is "fully without merit," the judge's colleague has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell reached his conclusion after reviewing the allegations of bias and conflict of interest on the part of U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart.

Stewart has declined to recuse himself from the matter several times, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year declined to order Stewart to release personal information on himself and his religious activities as requested by former Tribune managers.

In his 44-page ruling, released Wednesday, Cassell systematically struck down each of the claims raised by Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co. and its principal owners, the McCarthey family.

After already ruling repeatedly on similar motions, Stewart asked the court to randomly assign another judge to consider the matter.

SLTPC chairman Philip McCarthey said the ruling means additional litigation in the already lengthy ownership dispute.

"I'm obviously disappointed in it, but it just really means . . . that we've still got a long, long hard road ahead of us," McCarthey said.

Among the claims raised in the most recent motion are concerns that Stewart harbors bias against former Tribune managers because of articles published in the newspaper criticizing Stewart's nomination to the federal bench in 1999. Finding the argument "lacks merit," Cassell said judges are frequently criticized — in newspapers and otherwise — and that cannot form the basis for a recusal.

"Forcing judges to recuse because a litigant has criticized the judge would give litigants veto power and allow forum shopping," Cassell wrote.

Former managers have also taken issue with the fact that Stewart served as chief of staff to former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who had conversations with officials from former Tribune owner AT&T about a possible sale of the newspaper to the Deseret News. The sale never happened, and in January 2001 MediaNews Group Inc. bought the Tribune from AT&T.

It is that sale that sparked the federal lawsuit at the heart of the ownership dispute.

The McCartheys allege Stewart, as a member of Leavitt's cabinet, has extrajudicial knowledge about negotiations that color his view of the case. Stewart has previously denied having knowledge of any meeting between Leavitt and AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong.

Cassell found the allegation of prejudice unconvincing, saying Leavitt's role in the case is "so peripheral to the central events that no plausible basis for recusal exists."

As for other statements made during the course of the litigation that former Tribune managers contend indicate bias, Cassell said they are neither unusual or evidence of prejudice.

"There is certainly nothing wrongful or inappropriate about a judge reaching a conclusion on a matter that has been placed before him by the litigants in the case," Cassell said.

SLTPC seeks to regain ownership of the Tribune by exercising a 1997 option agreement that would have allowed them to purchase the newspaper in five years. In December, the 10th Circuit overturned an August 2003 ruling in which Stewart upheld a three-part appraisal process that set a $355.5 million final price of the Tribune. The appeals court sent the case back to Utah's federal court for a re-examination of SLTPC's claims that a final appraisal of the newspaper was flawed.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com