What is CCP 170.6, and How do Attorneys Use It?

Author: Brian M. Worthington
The situation involving embattled Santa Clara County Court Judge Aaron Persky took a new turn this week when the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office used California Code of Civil Procedure Section 170.6 to disqualify Judge Persky from an upcoming case. Some of our readers may be wondering, What is CCP 170.6?; When is it used?; and How do attorneys use it? We are here to answer those questions.

CCP 170.6 allows a party to a case (or the attorney representing that party) a one-time opportunity to disqualify a judge who is prejudiced against a party or the party’s cause. It applies equally to criminal and civil cases and has varying time restrictions depending on the type of calendaring system used in the County in which the case is being heard. A party can use CCP 170.6 to disqualify a judge assigned for all purposes, a judge assigned for a trial, or even a judge assigned for a specific motion.

The disqualification must be done in writing or orally under oath. The legal basis for a 170.6 disqualification (sometimes called “papering” a judge) is the bias against a party or cause. But in practice CCP 170.6 has almost unlimited applications—we have seen situations where a judge is disqualified due to personal conflicts with a particular attorney; where a judge has a blind spot toward a particular legal issue; or where a judge is perceived to have a habit of punishing too harshly or too leniently in particular criminal matters.

The ability to exercise a CCP 170.6 disqualification is a major tactical weapon for an attorney. For instance, if an attorney is handling a case where police misconduct is a major element of the defense, the attorney will want to avoid judges with strong law-enforcement ties or history of disregarding police misconduct. CCP 170.6 allows the attorney to do that. But an attorney must exercise great care in making the decision because the attorney can only choose which judge to disqualify, not the new judge assigned. On some occasions, the newly assigned judge may be just as bad on the particular issue as the original judge, or may even be worse on other issues that can come into play. Even using a disqualification and getting a great new judge is not always a cure-all for the client because if the new assigned judge is too favorable, the opposing party can turn around and disqualify the new judge. This leads to an interesting tête-à-tête between the opposing attorneys.

We hope this brief entry helps explain what CCP 170.6 is and how attorneys use to try help their clients. Thank you for reading.

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