A federal judge hearing a racial profiling lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is twin sister to the president of a major pro-immigrant rights organization.
That family tie, the sheriff's office contends, should disqualify Judge Mary Murguia from presiding over the case. First filed in December 2007, the lawsuit involves a group of Hispanic U.S. citizens and legal residents accusing deputies of violating their civil rights.
Mary Murguia's twin sister, Janet, is chief executive officer of the National Counsel of La Raza.
The Hispanic advocacy organization strongly opposes local police enforcement of immigration laws, arguing on its Web site that it leads to "increased racial profiling and civil rights violations by state and local police officers."
Sheriff's office attorneys on Wednesday filed a motion to remove Mary Murguia from the lawsuit. Janet Murguia's public position on local immigration enforcement presents a conflict of interest under federal law for her sister, the filing states.
"It's natural to be aware of what your siblings are doing and what their life's energies are in," said Timothy J. Casey, counsel for the sheriff's office. "And how can you not be influenced by that?"
The judge declined to comment on the sheriff's request, citing court policy to avoid public discussion of pending cases. Janet Murguia did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.
The plaintiffs, however, intend to fight to keep their lawsuit in Murguia's courtroom.
"The defense has offered nothing to suggest that this judge has been anything other than fair and impartial," said David Bodney, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
On Feb. 10, Mary Murguia denied the sheriff's motion to dismiss the case, moving the lawsuit closer to trial.
Casey said he expects the trial to begin sometime in 2010.
Sheriff's officials learned the two Murguias are related only after that ruling, said Jack MacIntyre, an attorney and deputy chief at the sheriff's office.
An article the following day in the Phoenix Business Journal mentioned the connection in its final paragraph.
The sheriff's top officials and attorneys then investigated to determine if it is accurate, MacIntyre said, and whether Janet Murguia has taken a position on immigration enforcement that could taint her sister's judgment.
Bodney said it is "inconceivable" that the sheriff's office did not know the Murguias are sisters.
"It's no secret," Bodney said. "It's public knowledge and, second, there's no precedent to suggest that a federal judge cannot serve on a case merely because of a sibling's position, unrelated to the case."
But MacIntyre said simply because Janet Murguia's organization isn't involved in the lawsuit doesn't mean her job isn't directly related. He said the judge's objectivity is in question because her sister has taken such a strong, public position on local police and racial profiling.
The lawsuit alleges that sheriff's deputies violated the plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
"No reasonable person should have even an inkling that the judge is not impartial or unbiased," MacIntyre said.