After taking a body blow last month from the judge presiding over the Rams relocation lawsuit, the NFL is trying to take the fight to a different ring.
Via Daniel Kaplan of TheAthletic.com, the NFL filed last week a motion for change of venue in the case. Although the motion was filed under seal, it’s obvious that the league doesn’t believe it can get a fair trial in the county that it abandoned.
The league likely has two concerns. First, it fears that it will be impossible to find an objective jury in St. Louis County, given that the Rams left town. Second, it quite possibly believes that the judge has a bias against the Rams and the NFL, based on the decision from last month to order that financial information of the Commissioner, Rams owner Stan Kroenke, and multiple other owners be released for the purposes of assessing potential punitive damages, even before ruling on a pending motion for summary judgment that, if successful, would end the case in the league’s favor.
A change of venue motion ostensibly targets the jury pool. But here’s the reality in St. Louis and any other NFL city. Tens of thousands of potential jurors in those locations don’t care about pro football. They don’t follow it. They don’t watch it. And they don’t think public money should ever be used to subsidize the billionaires who own the teams. Surely, a pool of prospective jurors who have no opinion whatsoever about the Rams or the NFL can be found in St. Louis County.
The timing of the motion is also a bit odd. If the NFL believes a fair jury can’t be seated in St. Louis County, why not file it right out of the gates? The league’s lawyers may have opted (as many lawyers do) to see how the initial rulings go in St. Louis County before seeking an in-flight Mulligan.
Thus, the motion for change of venue may simply be a subtly disguised effort to get away from a judge who has dared to tell the league and its billionaire owners something they don’t want to hear. If/when that motion fails, maybe a motion to recuse the judge will be next.
A recusal motion carries significant risk. It entails making a personal challenge to the integrity of the judge. If the judge doesn’t already have a bias, a motion like that could create one. If the judge has a bias, challenging the judge’s integrity won’t make it go away.
Some lawyers think that it makes sense to attack a judge who seems to be biased, reasoning that taking the fight public will compel the judge to be more fair. The truth, far more often than not, is that it will simply prompt the judge to be more careful.
Litigation entails plenty of close questions and rulings that fall within the broad and exclusive discretion of the trial judge. As long as he or she does nothing to reveal a given bias, those decisions on close question after close question after close question can be piled up into enough a large enough pile of discretion to make a victory virtually impossible.