In Brief

Anti-vaccine group seeks judge’s recusal from Rutgers mandate case

By: - September 9, 2021 7:02 am

Plaintiffs say Judge Zahid Quraishi’s recent time as a Rutgers professor could cause someone to question his impartiality. (Courtesy of C-SPAN)

Rutgers students and an anti-vaccine group suing the university in an attempt to override its vaccine mandate asked a U.S. District Court judge to recuse himself from the lawsuit, charging his time as a part-time Rutgers lecturer risks the appearance of a conflict.

The suit, lodged last month by 12 current or future Rutgers students and Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit headed by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., alleges the school’s requirement that all students be vaccinated to attend classes runs afoul of constitutional protections.

Their Sept. 3 motion for recusal does not claim Judge Zahid Quraishi’s time as an adjunct professor at Rutgers prejudices him against the plaintiffs, but it warns observers might have a different takeaway.

“Regretfully, because a reasonable person could question the impartiality of a judge who taught at the defendant university only a few months ago, we ask for recusal,” said their filing, which was first reported by Law360.

Quraishi, a graduate of Rutgers Law School, taught courses on trial presentation at the university in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, when he was a magistrate judge. The college announcement that it would require students to vaccinate before the start of the fall semester — which provides for religious and medical exemptions — came in March.

The judge left his university post when the spring term ended. He was confirmed to the federal bench in June.

The filing also raises Quraishi’s compliance with the school’s mask mandate as a possible cause for recusal, saying his adherence to the rule “furthers a reasonable perception that he might be likely to uphold Rutgers’ vaccine restrictions,” a fact they said was worsened by the public focus the case is likely to draw.

Attorneys for the university opposed the motion in a Monday filing, citing prior cases where judges who doubled as part-time university lecturers did not recuse, including two presided over by New Jersey District Court Chief Judge Freda Wolfson, who had also lectured at Rutgers.

Such non-recusals have repeatedly been held up on appeal, and the university claims the two cases cited by Children’s Health Defense do not speak to recusals of judges from cases involving a university where they served as instructors.

Quraishi is set to address the motion for his recusal by Oct. 4.

The suit against the school’s vaccine mandate faces long odds.

Vaccine mandates have generally been upheld under U.S. Supreme Court precedent dating back more than a century, and the high court in August declined to take up a similar case over Indiana University’s vaccine mandate.

Rutgers already required its students to submit proof of several immunizations to attend the university before COVID-19 vaccines were added to that list in the spring.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.