Don’t mess with the judge?

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Judge Ruehlman”

(with apologies to Jim Croce)

Robust exchanges between court and counsel are part and parcel of litigation, but there is of course a limit. As a recent Ohio case shows, it can result in judicial recusal.

Judge Ruehlman, sitting in the Jackson County Court of Common Pleas, found himself confronted by a self-represented litigant, whom the judge suspected (seemingly incorrectly) as being part of the ‘sovereign citizen’ movement; certainly, the litigant in question –one Roger Dean Ward – had a record of litigation consistent with the usual practice of that group.

In any event, his honour had clearly had enough of Mr Ward’s approach, and found him to be a vexatious litigant. Lest there be any doubt in Ward’s mind as to what that meant, his honour spelled it out in no uncertain terms:

“Now, listen to me, because I’m the guy you don’t want to play with. I don’t play well. I was the guy on the playground that nobody screwed with. My dad was a boxer. I was a boxer … I got five surgeries, plastic surgeries to prove that I was the guy nobody wanted to fool with and you don’t want to fool with – I have a reputation in my county, you don’t fool with Judge Ruehlman.


“You just don’t fool with me.  If you fool with me and file a complaint, any kind of complaint without permission, you’re going to jail. I’ll find you. I’ll come over here – I’ll drive over here and we will find you and track you down. You will be locked up.”

His honour mentioned several times that if Ward filed further unmeritorious complaints he would be immediately jailed. Ward applied to have the Judge recused on various grounds, including that the judge’s comments gave rise to an apprehension of bias.

While the other submissions were found to lack merit, the court did hold that Judge Ruehlman should be recused because the comments, finding (at 40):

“…an objective observer would reasonably conclude that the judge has already determined that Ward would be guilty of direct contempt for which jail time is the appropriate punishment—regardless of the evidence adduced at a potential contempt hearing…”

The Ohio Supreme Court went on to disqualify Judge Ruehlman, despite his honour’s submissions that his comments were simply an attempt to send Ward a “stern message” that the judge was not a “pushover”.

The case holds lessons for lawyers and judges alike. While litigants and clients can be frustrating, it is important to maintain a professional detachment and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.


Lawyers dealing with frustrating self-represented litigants or indeed difficult clients of their own may be tempted to deliver a strong message or engage in hyperbole in an effort to manage that person’s behaviour, but such efforts are risky and can give rise to unintended consequences.

Self-represented litigants usually require careful handling, and the QLS Guidance Statement No.09 Dealing with Self-represented Litigants can be of assistance in those circumstances.

As always, there remains a power in courteous and dispassionate discourse, and for lawyers and judges both that remains the best approach.

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