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Appeals court blocks ruling on 'stop and frisk'

A federal appeals court blocked an earlier ruling on changes to NYPD's controversial “stop and frisk” policy and booted the judge off the case.
Police stand guard in Times Square on July 10, 2012 in New York City.
Police stand guard in Times Square on July 10, 2012 in New York City.

Opponents of New York's stop-and-frisk policy cheered a judge this summer when she ruled the law unconstitutional and ordered a series of changes. But on Thursday, a higher court kicked Judge Shira Scheindlin off the case and put her decision on hold, accusing her of impropriety. 

“Upon review of the record in these cases, we conclude that the District Judge ran afoul of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, Canon 2," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded.

Scheindlin has given multiple media interviews, which critics pointed to as proof she was not impartial. "I know I'm not their favorite judge," Scheindlin told the Associated Press, in reference to the city government. And she told the New York Law Journal that a lot of judges are wary of issuing controversial rulings for fear it will hurt their career prospects.

“We could not be more pleased with the Court's findings,'' said Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, the city's chief attorney. The case “will now receive a fresh and independent look both by the appeals court and then, if necessary, by a different trial court judge,” he said.

At issue in the case is a New York police policy that has been criticized for stopping minorities disproportionately. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the number of stop-and-frisks skyrocketed to a high in 2011. Out of that year’s 684,330 stops, most were black and Hispanic men, according to the AP.

Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, heavily expected to win Tuesday's election, has put stop-and-frisk practices in the spotlight on the campaign trail. He issued a statement Thursday saying he's "extremely disappointed" in the latest ruling."We shouldn't have to wait for reforms that both keep our communities safe and obey the Constitution. We have to end the overuse of stop and frisk--and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect," he said.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group that won the challenge in the lower court, called Thursday's decision "troubling and unprecedented." The group also said the judge was smeared in a "whisper campaign" carried out by unnamed city officials. 

"We are dismayed that the Court of Appeals saw fit to delay the long-overdue process to remedy the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices, and we are shocked that they cast aspersions on the professional conduct of one of the most respected members of the federal judiciary and reassigned the case," the group said in a written statement.

The rare decision to remove Schiendlin "will be devastating for the plaintiffs," warned Scott Greenfield, a criminal defense lawyer and blogger at Simple Justice.

"While it would be unfair to suggest that another judge wouldn't reach the same conclusion, they will have lost the benefit of her having experienced the trial and the massive evidence propounded to show the systemic violations of civil rights, and may butt up against institutionalized bias in favor of the police and political decisions by the current administration," Greenfield told msnbc. "Judge Schiendlin has been one of the most independent judges when it comes to being fair to all parties, rather than giving the police the benefit of the doubt."

Communities United for Police Reform, another advocacy group opposed to the policing practice, pointed out that the decision could drag out the legal process. 

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and this delay to reforming the city’s stop-and-frisk program will be to the detriment of communities and New Yorkers throughout our city who have routinely had their rights violated and been made to fear both crime and the police," spokesperson Joo-Hyun Kang said in a written statement.

Thursday’s decision comes two days after the appeals court heard arguments over the requested stay from the city and plaintiffs.

NBC News contributed to this report.