Rock County judge removes self from case on day of sentencing
JANESVILLE—A Rock County judge removed himself from a case Thursday, on the morning he was scheduled to sentence a man for homicide by drunken driving.
District Attorney David O'Leary, who was prosecuting the high-profile case, was not pleased and after the hearing questioned whether Judge Michael Haakenson had to recuse himself.
Haakenson said he had not realized until Wednesday, when he read the pre-sentence investigation, that the accused, Michael A. Perry, is the brother of a woman with whom Haakenson has dealings.
Perry, 72, of 618 Sunset Drive, Janesville, drove his pickup truck into Christopher Rabuck, 37, of Janesville on Nov. 10 in Janesville's Riverside Park, killing Rabuck.
Perry, a former longtime teacher in Janesville schools, is the brother of Jackie Wood. Wood owns the Olde Towne Mall, where she rents space to the children's theater organization SpotLight on Kids.
Haakenson said he has been on the organization's board for years, is its current president, and he and other SpotLight members have warm relations with Wood.
Haakenson said he is grateful to Wood for her support over the years, and when his biography appears in the program of SpotLight plays, he always includes a line thanking her.
Perry pleaded guilty June 21 to the charge of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle. Haakenson found him guilty and ordered the pre-sentence report written. The report includes a page on Wood's opinion of what Perry's sentence should be, Haakenson said.
Haakenson cited a state statute that requires judges to disqualify themselves if the judge determines “that, for any reason, he or she cannot, or it appears he or she cannot, act in an impartial manner.”
Haakenson said he was concerned he might not be able to act impartially in Perry's sentencing, and he said others who knew of his relationship with Wood might question his impartiality.
Haakenson asked O'Leary if he had any comment on the matter. O'Leary said "no" because Haakenson had already decided.
But outside the courtroom, O'Leary said he was not notified of Haakenson's impending decision until Thursday morning, and he was particularly upset because Rabuck's loved ones, who were in court for the sentencing at 11 a.m., had to delay closure.
O'Leary said the state Code of Judicial Conduct would not require a judge to recuse himself in such a case. And if every judge followed the same standard that Haakenson set, judges in small counties—where judges know so many residents—would not be able to handle most cases.
Those judges often know the people they are sentencing, “but they still do their job. They're required to do that job, and they do it to the best of their ability,” O'Leary said.
Haakenson said he checked with the county's other judges, and he was sure a new sentencing date would be set soon.