Court asks judges to respond to Louisiana sheriff's claims

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A federal appeals court on Monday asked two judges to respond to a petition by a Louisiana sheriff who claims another judge was improperly removed from his criminal case without explanation.

A letter from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Chief Judge Dee Drell of the Western District of Louisiana and U.S. District Judge Donald Walter in Shreveport are "invited" to file written responses by Oct. 6. The appeals court also asked two federal prosecutors to respond to Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal's arguments.

Ackal's attorney, John McLindon, argued in a court filing Friday that U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi's mysterious removal from the sheriff's case violated court rules and apparently was done without her consent earlier this year.

McLindon also is challenging Walter's decision to hold the trial in Shreveport instead of Lafayette, where the case originated.

The letter from the 5th Circuit doesn't specify what issues the judges and prosecutors should address in their responses to Ackal's petition. The letter indicated that they discussed the matter by telephone on Monday morning.

Ackal awaits trial next month on charges over the alleged beatings of jail inmates. Nine former employees of the sheriff's office already have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the Justice Department's civil rights investigation.

Minaldi originally was assigned to preside over the high-profile cases against the sheriff and 11 of his subordinates. But Drell abruptly reassigned the cases to Walter in March, two days after Ackal's indictment. Drell didn't give a reason for the switch in his one-sentence orders.

Four days before Minaldi's removal from the cases, she was in the middle of accepting guilty pleas by 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 March 7 hearing in Lake Charles without giving a reason on the record.

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