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Montana couple’s bid to disqualify judge denied

MONTEVIDEO -- A Montana couple charged in Chippewa County District Court with 12 felony counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult cannot disqualify Judge Thomas Van Hon from their cases, a judge has ruled.The May 9 ruling from Chief ...

MONTEVIDEO - A Montana couple charged in Chippewa County District Court with 12 felony counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult cannot disqualify Judge Thomas Van Hon from their cases, a judge has ruled.
The May 9 ruling from Chief District Judge Donald Spilseth came quickly, just days after after the May 6 motion hearing when the defense and prosecution made arguments for and against Van Hon’s removal.
Michael Scott Christie, 61, and Martina Annette Christie, 59, were not present at that hearing, or any in their cases so far - there have been active warrants out for their arrests since January, when they did not appear at their first hearing.
Motions to quash, or void, their warrants have been denied by Van Hon.
The charges claim Martina Christie conspired with Michael Christie to use over $40,000 of her mother-in-law’s financial resources for their own lifestyles. Court documents also allege the Christies transferred two parcels of land worth a combined $300,000 to themselves.
Michael Christie’s mother died in February 2015. Prior to that, the Clarkfield woman was evicted from the Clarkfield Care Center for non-payment in late 2014 and accumulated over $72,000 in expenses.
The criminal complaint says Michael and Martina Christie paid the western Minnesota care center only $200 during that period, while they spent over $6,000 on clothing for themselves and wrote themselves $6,000 worth of checks.
Attorney Christa Goshek represented both of them at the May 6 hearing, arguing that Van Hon should be dismissed from the case because of an “appearance of impropriety” stemming from what Groshek called “judicial bias.”
Van Hon presided over many of the hearings in the probate case involving the conservatorship of the estate in question.
He ruled against the Christies’ multiple times in that civil court case, including canceling the sale of land.
“There is no doubt that the findings he has made already would impact the decisions in the criminal case,” Groshek said at the May 6 hearing.
But in his May 9 order and memorandum, Spilseth said there are no grounds to support Van Hon’s disqualification from the case for bias.
“All facts indicate Judge Van Hon acted properly during the civil matter,” Spilseth wrote, “and there is no evidence of Judge Van Hon developing a bias towards the parties as a result of ruling in that matter.”
He said the existence of prior “adverse rulings” doesn’t prevent Van Hon from being fair in future rulings.
Spilseth did note that no judge has actually been officially assigned in the criminal cases against the Christies.
Once an assignment has been made, the Christies will have the option to remove the judge without cause under a different clause in standard Minnesota criminal procedure, with no debate, as long as the request is timely.
Minnesota law says a party in a case can remove a judge only once without cause.
No further hearings in the Christie cases have been set.

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