The Alameda County DA's office cannot prosecute the case against Butch Ford due to "an insurmountable conflict of interest" displayed by elected DA Pamela Price, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer said Price's "overarching comments" about the case had been "outside the realm of what is normal in a criminal proceeding."
"I take no view as to the validity of the charges or the strength of the evidence," Cramer went on to note.
The state attorney general's office will now take on the matter and is expected to appear at a hearing before Cramer next week.
Price charged Ford with a misdemeanor in July, alleging that he broke the law by helping a defendant while he was an Alameda County prosecutor.
If found guilty, he could be disbarred.
Price claims Ford "breached several professional rules and codes of conduct" when he talked with his attorney, Michael Rains, about a fatal police shooting case being prosecuted by her office against former San Leandro cop Jason Fletcher.
Ford says he's done nothing wrong and that Price is going after him because he's a whistleblower, vocally criticizing the new DA and her administration.
Ford has also been a proponent of the recall effort against Price.
Price and Ford have butted heads politically for years. She placed him on administrative leave within weeks of taking office in January 2023.
At the time, Price accused Ford of misconduct but never presented any evidence of his alleged misdeeds, his defense team says. He later left the Alameda County DA's office and went to work in San Francisco as a prosecutor.
Attorneys for both sides in the Ford matter — prosecutor Leah Abraham and defense attorney Micheal O'Connor — argued before Judge Cramer for nearly an hour Wednesday afternoon about the recusal motion, which the defense brought forward late last year.
Cramer then summarized the history of the "fraught relationship" between Price and Ford as well as some of Price's public posts about Ford.
The posts included accusations by Price of misconduct by Ford as well as claims that he was not trustworthy.
Ford has never been found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct, according to the State Bar of California.
Price also emailed the entire DA's office after her office filed the misdemeanor case against him alleging that Ford "broke the public trust and betrayed our office."
In the months that followed, her office issued press releases about minor developments in the case, including updates about "rulings on little motions," which the defense said was unusual and showed Price's strong interest in the outcome of the proceedings.
The judge also referenced a now-deleted DA's office post on X (formerly Twitter) where the office had used a graphic showing the word "conviction" about a decision that Ford would be booked.
"Focusing on the word 'conviction' makes it crystal clear, to me at least, what the DA and the DA's office wants in this case," Cramer said. "The repeated comments on a misdemeanor case that have nothing to do with the facts of the case or anything … when she puts them out to her office, when she puts them out to the public of potential jurors, I do find that there is both an appearance of conflict of interest … and there is a likelihood of unfairness that could have a strong negative effect on the discretionary power exercised before or during or after trial."
Cramer said the behavior of prosecutor Leah Abraham had raised no concerns, but noted that he did see a potential legal issue with an elected district attorney making clear "her personal interest in the outcome of a case."
The Alameda County DA's office can now appeal the ruling, but it was unknown Wednesday whether that might happen.
The DA's office said it would not comment on Cramer's ruling.
The attorney general's office has not responded to a request for comment.
"A very extreme remedy"
Ernie Castillo, a member of Ford's legal team, said he could not recall a time when the entire Alameda County DA's office had been recused from a case.
During Wednesday's hearing, prosecutor Abraham had argued that Price's comments and conduct in relation to Butch Ford had not been "severe" enough to warrant the recusal of the entire Alameda County DA's office.
She said a recusal on that scale would be "a very extreme remedy" and urged the court to "be very cautious" about making such a ruling.
Recusal is justified only when the prosecutor has an interest in a case that is extraneous to his or her official duties, Abraham had written in her motion.
"This is where the defense fails and this is where they don't meet their burden," she said Wednesday.
She also told the court that there wasn't much "potential for unfairness" given that jail was "basically off the table" and because there was "no room for enhancements" or additional charges in a misdemeanor case.
Abraham also told the court that the defense team had refused any resolution in the matter, opting instead to take it to trial.
O'Connor said the defense had refused to consider a deal after the prosecution had said, "We want Mr. Ford's bar card," which would have meant he could no longer practice law.
O'Connor said the main issue for the judge to consider was the role politics had played in the "continuing animosity" between Price and Ford.
He said Price had referenced anti-Ford T-shirts on social media and in her political campaign and inappropriately linked the Ford matter to the ongoing Fletcher prosecution.
"Although the prosecution claims that this is not as extreme [as other recusal cases], I disagree," O'Connor said. Of the 45 or so cases he and Abraham referenced in their motions, he added, "not a single one has as strong a showing for recusal as we have made here."
O'Connor also referenced the prosecutor's duty to ensure a defendant's right to a fair trial and said Price had stepped over the line by making comments outside the appropriate context.
"Whatever the motivation, whatever the passion," he said, "that is not permitted."
"Repeated comments about the defendant"
From the bench, Judge Cramer said he was granting the defense motion because of the "significant conflict of interest that exists that could prevent Mr. Ford from receiving a fair trial."
He noted that, while DA Price was "more than entitled to have a strong opinion" about the need for change in the Alameda County DA's office, "the problem here for me is that the elected district attorney has made repeated comments about the defendant in this case, Mr. Ford."
He said Ford began making "strong comments" about Price during the 2018 campaign and that Price later sent a fundraising email referencing Ford in 2021.
She placed him on leave in January 2023 and, several months later, in April, he signed the declaration in the Fletcher case that formed the basis for the criminal charge against him.
In May, Ford resigned from the DA's office, writing a searing letter that included strong objections to Price's management of the office.
On July 17, the DA's office filed the criminal case against Ford. The same day, according to exhibits in the case, Price posted on Facebook about Ford's alleged "misconduct," sharing a video of individuals wearing T-shirts critical of Ford saying, in part, "Ford strikes again."
Cramer said the timing of the Facebook post indicated Price's apparent view of Ford's continuing alleged misconduct, saying, essentially, that "he's done it again and now I'm filing a charge against him."
He said Price had made it clear she was interested in the outcome of the case, which could potentially affect the case itself.
"The fact that this is a misdemeanor, the fact that it will go to trial, does not remove from the equation the discretionary decisions a prosecutor will make in this case going forward," he said.
Cramer said he expects to continue to review issues related to the case up to trial but would not oversee the trial itself.
The case is now set to return before him Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 9 a.m. at the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin in Dept. 705.
This story was updated after publication to include additional details.