Chicago Judge Removed From Trial After Disagreement with Fitzgerald
By Channing Turner | July 29, 2010 1:25 pm

The prosecutor and the judge: U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (left) and Chief District Judge James Holderman. (Getty; Illinois State Bar)

An appeals court removed a Chicago federal judge from a criminal drug trial Wednesday after disagreements between the judge and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald delayed the case.

In a brief order, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit removed Chief Judge James Holderman of the Northern District of Illinois and instructed the district court to appoint a new judge to oversee the trial.

Fitzgerald did not ask for Holderman’s dismissal. In a petition, the prosecutor asked the appeals court to reverse Holderman’s decision to exclude fingerprint evidence. In the petition, Fitzgerald accused Holderman of “unfortunate hostility toward the government.”

The three-judge panel agreed to reverse the ruling, saying the evidence should not be excluded.

But in an unusual twist, Judges Richard Posner, Diane Sykes and Ilana Rovner went one step further, removing Holderman from the case entirely. The panel did not give a reasoning for the removal.

“This is an extraordinary situation; it really is,” DePaul University law professor Len Cavise told the Chicago Tribune. “Posner is one of those judges that if something happens procedurally that he doesn’t like, he will take action immediately.”

Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, declined to comment when reached Thursday by Main Justice.

Before the trial, Holderman took issue with evidence of two fingerprints on drug packaging because prosecutors missed a court-imposed deadline for evidence gathering. He excluded them, but the appeals court ruled the evidence should be allowed.

Holderman objected to the evidence again during the trial, prompting prosecutors to file a second appeal and stopping the trial.

In his petition, Fitzgerald said Holderman accused prosecutors of misrepresenting facts and threatening to hold misconduct hearings. In response, Holderman filed court papers Tuesday saying the petition contained “deficiencies” and “false factual statements.”

Holderman and Fitzgerald have a history of heated clashes in court.

Holderman, a judge in Chicago since 1985, was named Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 2006. He previously worked as a federal litigator at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. Before his time in private practice, Holderman prosecuted white-collar crimes as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago from 1972 to 1978.

Holderman’s temper has earned him a reputation. A 2006 study by the Chicago Council of Lawyers gave him the lowest score of any judge on the court primarily because of his alleged anger issues, according to 2006 article in the Chicago Sun-Times. Critics sometimes refer to him as “Holdermaniac,” and the study found he commonly “yells, screams and intimidates,” the Sun-Times said.

Fitzgerald’s strife-ridden relationship with Holderman began as early as 2005.

Holderman accused Fitzgerald and four of his assistants of improperly disclosing secret grand jury trial material to attorneys involved in a civil case at the firm Winston & Strawn LLP . The judge ordered the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to open an investigation into the conduct of the U.S. Attorney’s office.

In response, Fitzgerald reproached Holderman for “petty harassment” of prosecutors and “a disturbing lack of objectivity.” He claimed the probe was retaliation; Fitzgerald had previously requested that Holderman recuse himself from the case based on a conflict of interest with Winston & Strawn.

An appeals court ultimately halted the judge’s inquiry.

But Holderman and Fitzgerald haven’t always disagreed. In 2008, Holderman was the judge who approved Fitzgerald’s request for surveillance of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The current drug case against Clacy Watson Herrera, however, shows a lingering tension between the zealous prosecutor and temperamental judge.

Herrera is represented by Gabriel Fuentes and Katherine Welsh of Jenner & Block LLP.

Joe Palazzolo contributed to this story. This post has been updated since it was originally published.

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