Bruce cases reassigned

United States District Judge Colin Bruce talks in his chambers in 2017 at the federal courthouse in downtown Urbana.

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URBANA — In what appears to be an effort by federal Judge Colin Bruce to avoid any notion that he might favor one party over another, several criminal cases that he’d normally be expected to hear have been reassigned.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm has agreed to hear several criminal cases at the Urbana courthouse. Mihm, 76, presided in Peoria for 27 years before taking senior status in 2009.

The reassignment of more than a dozen criminal cases by Chief Judge Sara Darrow to Mihm became apparent late last month and early this month when there was a flurry of brief docket orders entered stating that Mihm was now on them.

Urbana federal judge will soon resume full duties after being 'admonished'

While there was no written explanation for the reassignments, they coincide with the completion of Bruce’s period of discipline for “ex parte” (one-sided) communications he had in 2016 in the form of emails with an employee of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District. Bruce worked in that office for 24 years and supervised for three before being appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2013.

The attorneys involved in the cases being reassigned to Mihm had a connection — some very minimal — to the underlying case that got Bruce into hot water with his superiors in August 2018.

That’s when the emails were first made public by the Illinois Times, resulting in Bruce not being allowed to hear criminal cases until Sept. 1 of this year.

The reassignments appear to extend to other lawyers in the same offices as the ones who had case connections.

Shig Yasunaga, clerk of the court for the Central District of Illinois, would not say how many cases Darrow reassigned to Mihm that possibly could have gone back to Bruce.

“The Urbana cases have been reassigned consistent with the Seventh Circuit council’s resolution of the judicial misconduct case” concerning Bruce, Yasunaga said.

Initial complaint

In late June, the Judicial Council for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals “admonished” Bruce for the appearance of impropriety surrounding emails he wrote to a paralegal in his former office. On a weekend break in the December 2016 criminal trial over which he was presiding, Bruce wrote to his friend his opinion of the performance of a prosecutor in the trial.

The emails prompted the filing of a formal complaint against him with the judicial council by another federal judge and by Thomas Patton, the federal public defender for the Central District.

Patton further complained of a pattern by Bruce of communicating with prosecutors and their support staff without notifying defense attorneys.

The same federal judges who admonished Bruce found that those ex parte communications had not affected his decision-making.

As punishment, they ordered him to review judicial ethics policies and watch a training video for judges on how to preserve the public trust. And they said that effective Sept. 1, Bruce could again hear criminal cases involving the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In their order, they noted that Bruce “welcomed” their advice on whether he needed to recuse himself from hearing cases involving the public defender’s office since Patton had filed the complaint. The judges declined to offer it.

“We believe such advice would be well outside of our scope of authority and that Judge Bruce should consult the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Codes of Conduct for any ethical advice,” the order said.

Mum’s the word

Bruce said he was unable to discuss any reason for the case reassignments. His attorney, Marc Ansel of Champaign, also declined to comment.

A cursory glance at some of the reassigned cases suggests he is erring on the side of caution regarding how his impartiality might be perceived by choosing not to deal with attorneys involved in anything remotely related to the email maelstrom.

That includes several cases involving Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson, Patton and his assistants in the public defender’s office, and the Beckett law office.

Peirson was one of the prosecutors in the 2016 international kidnapping case Bruce presided over but not the one about whose conduct he had complained in his emails. She handles many of her office’s cases involving sex crimes against children.

Steve Beckett of Urbana, of counsel in the firm that bears his name, was interviewed by News-Gazette Media in the wake of Bruce’s temporary removal from hearing criminal cases in August 2018.

A veteran defense lawyer who both practices and teaches law, including ethics, Beckett said Bruce should not have been talking about an ongoing trial with a friend, even in a personal email — especially one who worked in the prosecutor’s office.

This week, Beckett declined to comment on the case reassignments, as did Peirson, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sharon Paul, and Elisabeth Pollock, an assistant public defender who represents defendants in several of the reassigned cases. Patton did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The ramifications

Mihm was at the Urbana courthouse on Monday and Tuesday, setting new dates for status hearings, pretrial conferences, trials and sentences in several cases involving attorneys from the U.S. Public Defender’s Office and a few others from the Beckett law office.

One of the more high-profile cases affected is that of alleged domestic terrorist Michael Hari, 48, of Clarence, accused of the attempted arson of Women’s Health Practice in Champaign in 2017, possession of a machine gun and conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats of violence.

Hari is represented by Pollock, who just wrapped up her two-year representation of Brendt Christensen, convicted of the kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang of China.

Christensen’s case was one of several taken from Bruce a year ago and reassigned to other judges in the Central District. Judge James Shadid, who sits in Peoria, presided over that trial. Darrow, from Rock Island, and Sue Myerscough, who sits in Springfield, took over others.

Hari’s case is now tentatively set for trial Dec. 16 in Urbana, with the expectation that his trial on separate criminal charges in Minnesota in the 2017 firebombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minn., will proceed to trial first in late September.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller warned Mihm that the Minnesota trial could also be delayed based on a number of unresolved pretrial motions.

Mihm also is now on the case of Hari co-defendant Ellis “E.J.” Mack, 19, who pleaded guilty a year ago to conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats of violence and possession of a machine gun.

Mack is represented by Larry Solava, a lawyer at the Beckett law office. The judge reset Mack’s sentencing to Dec. 4.

Also affected was Stephan Caamano, a Champaign man who pleaded guilty in April to operating a robust counterfeit Xanax distribution operation from his west Champaign home and money laundering in 2017 and 2018. After initial representation by the public defender, Caamano had Beckett assigned to represent him.

Darrow inherited that case in August 2018 from Bruce, and rather than giving it back to him, she reassigned it to Mihm, who set sentencing for Jan. 6.

Another case opened in May 2018 accusing Franshon Stapleton of sex trafficking in Champaign remains unresolved. Prosecuted by Peirson and originally assigned to Bruce, it’s now reassigned to Mihm after having gone to Darrow last August. Mihm set a motion hearing for Nov. 5 and a tentative trial date of Jan. 27.

Two co-defendants have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and are awaiting sentencing. Beckett represents one of them, whose case was reassigned to Mihm. Champaign attorney Steve Sarm represents the other, whose case also went to Mihm.

If there’s any bright spot for the attorneys involved in the shuffled cases, it’s that Mihm has set the hearings for the Urbana courthouse, meaning he will be the one to travel, not them.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).