Houston County Circuit Judge J. Michael Conaway, in an order filed Friday, refused to remove himself from hearing evidence in a case involving the seizure of bingo machines from Center Stage Alabama. His order comes after three other judges removed themselves from the case.
At issue is a forfeiture hearing involving the seizure of more than 600 gambling devices and $283,000 in cash from the entertainment development previously known as Country Crossing.
The machines were seized in late July after a search warrant was obtained by Attorney Genral Luther Strange. Center Stage remains open offering paper bingo and, according to recent visitors, some types of electronic bingo machines. Strange seeks to destroy the machines seized in July.
Conaway had been asked by the Houston Economic Development Authority to disqualify himself from presiding---citing, among other things, persuasive media coverage. The Authority oversees bingo operations at Center Stage.
However, in his ruling, Judge Conaway said "The primary ground of the Motion to Recuse is the assertion that the "persuasive media coverage and resultant public discourse serves to disqualify any judge who is sitting in Houston County, Alabama. The 20th Judicial Circuit has decided hundreds of cases involving Houston County, Henry County, and municipalities located therein. Many of these cases involved extensive media coverage yet I am unaware of any case where a motion for recusal was filed based on pervasive media coverage and resultant public discourse," said Conaway..
"The only factual basis asserted in the motion is a recitation of media coverage directly or indirectly related to this case. There are no facts alleged which would show this Court has any bias, hostility or prejudice," Conaway wrote in the order.
The three judges who have disqualified themselves from presiding over the case are Brad Mendheim, Larry Anderson, and Henry D. "Butch" Binford. All three of those---but not Conaway---were sitting judges when the issue of the legality of bingo at Country Crossing first surfaced and recused themselves due a directive issued in 2009 by the Judicial Inquiry Commission.
HEDA attorney Ernie Horsnby said a more specific motion will be filed in the case---likely during the early part of next week.
A hearing on other motions has been set for September 26.