- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A federal appeals court refused Thursday to reverse a judge’s mysterious removal from the Justice Department’s high-profile civil rights case against a south Louisiana sheriff.

Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal argued that U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi’s removal in March violated court rules and apparently was done without her consent.

But in a one-sentence order, a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Ackal’s requests to have the case transferred back to Minaldi and to move his trial back to Lafayette, which is near Iberia Parish, from Shreveport, roughly 200 miles away.

Ackal’s attorney, John McLindon, said he’s “very disappointed.”

“It’s really not fair to all of the parties and witnesses who have to travel that far,” he said.

Chief Judge Dee Drell of the Western District of Louisiana hasn’t explained why he reassigned the cases against Ackal and several of the sheriff’s subordinates to U.S. District Judge Donald Walter. The 5th Circuit invited Drell to respond to Ackal’s petition by last Thursday, but he didn’t publicly file any response.

On March 7, four days before her removal, Minaldi was accepting the guilty pleas of two former sheriff’s deputies when a prosecutor cut her off mid-sentence and asked to speak to a defense attorney. Then, after a short break and private discussion with the attorneys, Minaldi adjourned the hearing in Lake Charles without giving a reason on the record, according to a transcript.

Those two former deputies pleaded guilty later that day in Lafayette, more than 70 miles away, in front of Drell. At the start of those proceedings, Drell noted that the hearing before Minaldi was “unable to be completed,” but didn’t specify a reason, according to a transcript.

Ackal has pleaded not guilty to civil rights violations over the alleged beatings of jail inmates. A trial for the sheriff and two more of his subordinates is scheduled to start Oct. 31 in Shreveport, which is where Walter is based.

Justice Department prosecutors opposed Ackal’s petition, arguing he doesn’t have a “clear and indisputable” right to have Minaldi reassigned to the case or to have it tried in Lafayette. The prosecutors’ 20-page court filing last Wednesday shed no light on why she was removed in March.

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