Prosecutors seek new judge in starving horses case

Billings, Montana (AP) May 2011

The Yellowstone County attorney’s office wants to reassign the animal cruelty case against James Leachman involving hundreds of starving horses after a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez made him both a judge and defendant.

County Attorney Scott Twito filed a motion asking Hernandez to recuse himself from Leachman’s case to avoid any appearance of impropriety, The Billings Gazette reported. A hearing on the motion is set for May 11.

James Leachman is charged with eight counts of animal cruelty for failing to properly feed and care for more than 800 horses on a ranch east of Billings. He has pleaded not guilty.

The horses were rounded up for trespassing on Crow tribal lands and sold at auction. Seth Leachman – James Leachman’s son – successfully bid on about 65 of those horses, then turned them loose on land his father leased from the tribe. During a hearing last month, Hernandez gave James Leachman 10 days to remove the horses after he said they did not belong to him.

Seth Leachman filed a civil lawsuit against Hernandez stemming from this ruling. Seth Leachman argues the horses are his and Hernandez has no jurisdiction to order them removed. The lawsuit also argued that the judge’s order interfered with Seth Leachman’s contract with his father to use the leased land.

The lawsuit makes Hernandez a defendant in federal court and the judge in a misdemeanor case of animal cruelty against Leachman’s father

“In light of the situation created by Seth Leachman, the state recommends a recusal to avoid appearance of impropriety in the criminal case,” Twito’s motion said.

James Leachman served Hernandez with his son’s lawsuit, the Gazette reports.

The county attorney’s office defends public officials facing lawsuits, including Hernandez. Twito has referred Seth Leachman’s lawsuit to his civil division to decide whether it will defend Hernandez or hire a private attorney.