Urbana attorney on judge's emails: 'That's not something that would be done during the trial'

Urbana attorney on judge's emails: 'That's not something that would be done during the trial'

URBANA — An Urbana attorney who has practiced in both state and federal courts locally for 45 years said he's "shocked" by the temporary removal of U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce from hearing criminal cases.

But Steve Beckett, who appears regularly before Bruce, said he understands that judges are human beings.

"I'm certain that judges think as they observe a trial and comment to themselves about what the lawyers are doing. But, of course, they're referees and don't get involved in the fray," he observed.

"So when I heard that this wasn't just being said to oneself but being shared with someone else, I immediately thought, 'That's not good.' Then when I heard it was (shared) with someone in the U.S. Attorney's Office, I thought, 'It's not only not good, it's bad.'"

What was being shared by Bruce in emails to a former co-worker was his critique of the performance of federal prosecutors during a December 2016 international parental kidnapping trial and his observations of how the trial was going.

Bruce's emails with Lisa Hopps, a paralegal in the U.S. Attorney's Office whom he worked with when he was a prosecutor, were sent on a Saturday during the weekend break in the trial of Sarah Nixon of Urbana, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison.

In a motion for a new trial, filed earlier this week by Nixon herself, she included the emails, which had been sent to her attorney in late May by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They are no longer accessible on the public-records site.

In her motion, Nixon said Bruce had "discussed the viability" of her case, "criticized the trial strategy" of the U.S. attorneys and "speculated on the shifting odds and likelihood of a conviction," all of which constitute grounds for a new trial.

Reached Friday via email, Nixon declined to comment on the new developments.

Beckett said the analysis of Bruce's email exchange with his friend and former colleague — which Bruce maintains was "innocuous" — is the same as a judge would have to apply when a client claims his or her lawyer has been ineffective.

"Is there misconduct and did it affect the result?" he said. "One could say the chief judge has to err on the side of caution: 'Let's not let that judge have a criminal docket.'"

The action by Chief Judge James Shadid to remove Bruce from the criminal cases has wide-ranging, if not entirely clear, consequences. He will have to decide which of the other judges in the Central District will hear those cases. And those judges will likely have to decide if they will remain in their home courtrooms or travel to Urbana.

"It's affecting all of us and our clients," said Beckett, who said he currently has about 10 active criminal cases before Bruce and that he'll have to explain what's going on to his clients.

Among those clients are the family of Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois visiting scholar from China who is presumed dead at the hands of her alleged kidnapper, Brendt Christensen. The government is seeking the death penalty for Christensen.

Beckett said Chinese lawyer Zhidong Wang first saw the Illinois Times story about Bruce's emails online Thursday and sent Beckett an email asking what difference it would make in Christensen's case.

Beckett said his initial response, which he has to do via email with Wang because of the time difference, was that it was limited to Nixon's case.

On Friday, after learning of Bruce's temporary removal, Beckett zipped off another email to Wang saying he was wrong and that it's hard to predict what might happen.

"I hope to talk to him Monday," Beckett said.

Meantime, Beckett said he read the emails Bruce exchanged with Hopps before they were removed from the public record and noted that despite his respect for Bruce, he found them concerning.

"That has an appearance. Just as we are concerned about the appearance of propriety for attorneys, there is an appearance for judges, too," said Beckett, who taught law students for years and has delivered many lectures on ethics. "In the system, we have to be concerned about that.

"We're so used to dealing with judges and cases that it would never occur to us that judges are human beings, and they are," he said. "Away from the bench, they tell stories about things attorneys do. Those judges are very, very cautious about it. That's not something that would be done during the trial."