Editorial | A colossal mistake in judgment

Editorial | A colossal mistake in judgment

The highly secretive process by which federal judges are investigated for alleged misconduct makes it impossible to determine what is going on with the case of U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce. But it's clear that his decision to exchange emails with a one-time co-worker in the U.S. attorney's office, no matter how innocuous they were, was a major error in judgment.

Soon after it became known that U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce of Urbana had exchanged emails with a former colleague in the U.S. attorney's office, the chief judge for the Central District of Illinois acted to "temporarily" remove him from a number of cases where federal prosecutors are involved.

The emails from Bruce, which he termed "innocuous," included critiques of the performance of a federal prosecutor in a trial. Far from innocuous, the emails could have been used by prosecutors at the trial to fine-tune their case or correct their presentation.

The Administrative Office for the U.S. Court uses the following as an example of judicial misconduct: "having improper discussions with parties or counsel for one side in a case."

That's apparently why Chief U.S. District Judge James Shadid had to act last week to reassign all of Bruce's cases in which federal prosecutors were a party.

Shadid didn't say why or how long the temporary reassignments would last.

That means that Bruce's colleagues on the bench will have to pick up dozens of his cases, including former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock's corruption trial and the Brendt Christensen kidnapping case. Not only will Bruce's judicial colleagues be inconvenienced, but so will attorneys, defendants and families, and justice likely will be delayed.

Furthermore, it seems likely that Bruce'sconduct in dozens of other cases will have to be reviewed to see whether the judge had written similar emails that could be viewed as possibly disadvantaging defendants and their attorneys.

Reactions to Bruce's blunder have been stern. Urbana attorney Harvey Welch said it created "a mess," and a former federal prosecutor in Chicago told The Associated Press it was "extremely unusual and way beyond the pale."

Any investigation of Bruce ultimately would be conducted with the approval of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, although officials there will say only that all complaints against federal judges are confidential, so they won't even acknowledge there is an investigation.

Bruce's misstep is a teaching moment for others. Most of us, particularly public officials, are warned to watch what we write in emails. That goes doubly for judges who are supposed to be models of impartiality, integrity and independence.

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