Judge Thomas McGinty recused himself from the case on December 11, 2006, citing a potential conflict of interest with his own attempts to reform criminal practices in Cleveland.
Judge McGinty has raised issues with the Cleveland Police Department practice of "straight release" -- arrest and process a suspect, then release them until an indictment is filed, if one ever is. The rationale behind this is to limit overpopulation in Cuyahoga County's already overcrowded jail system. Sowell received this treatment in 2008 when a woman informed police he had attacked her. He was arrested & processed, but no indictment was filed.
Conflict of interest is something all lawyers, and hence all judges, are keen to avoid. A lawyer is above all a servant of their clients and a servant can't serve two masters in conflict with one another. Given the magnitude of this case, Judge McGinty definitely felt it was better to be safe than sorry and sought to recuse himself before a conflict that would truly cripple the case and create even more appeals than are already expected for a capital case.
A new judge has already been selected, Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, also of the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas. Judge McGinty ruled on several pretrial motions, mentioned in a previous article here: http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-32467-Cleveland-True-Crime-Examiner~y2009m12d11-One-step-finished-in-the-Sowell-trial-next-step-not-until-the-21st
These motions may be re-examined by Judge Saffold, but likely won't be overturned. The original decisions seem fair enough and there hasn't been mention of new opposition. December 21st will still likely set out jury selection preliminaries which will last until March or April. As always, new articles will come as the case proceeds.