Craig Noll was given the harshest possible sentence — 364 days — for a road rage incident involving Stevens County District Court's only elected judge, Gina Tveit
. Last month, Noll's sentence was thrown out, in part, because of the relationship between Tveit and the judge she appointed as a replacement.
As the victim in the incident, Tveit could not preside over the case and instead appointed Judge Lloyd Nickel. As the regular temporary judge in Stevens County, Nickel is employed at Tveit's discretion, and the two are described in court documents as "maintaining a collegial relationship as friends."
During one of the hearings, Nickel appeared to look to his colleague Tveit, who was sitting in the courtroom, "in a manner suggesting he was seeking her approval," Noll's defense attorney Brendan Kidd claimed in court documents. Tveit has acknowledged she was in the courtroom, but said the claims that she influenced Nickel's decision are "ridiculous ... with absolutely no factual basis."
Citing the alleged courtroom glance, among other reasons, Kidd requested that Nickel recuse himself from the case because his impartiality could reasonably be called into question. Nickel denied the request, saying it was made too late in the process.
Ultimately, Nickel slapped Noll, who is autistic, with the nearly year-long jail sentence despite a recommendation from the prosecutor for no jail time and despite Noll's lack of a criminal record. Tveit, for her part, now says she agrees with the prosecutor's recommendation that Noll serve no time in jail.
Noll appealed his sentence, and in December Superior Court Judge Patrick Monasmith threw out Noll's guilty plea and his sentence. He also ordered the District Court to appoint a different judge.
Monasmith's ruling says Nickel was wrong to deny the request to step away from the case on the basis that it wasn't made in time. In fact, requests of that nature can be made at any time in a case.
But the bigger issue was the fact that Nickel presided over the case in the first place, Monasmith ruled. The nature of the relationship between Tveit and Nickel was enough to call Nickel's impartiality into question.
"The court finds that he should have disqualified himself from participating in the case from the outset," Monasmith writes.