U.S. Judge Colin Bruce just can’t escape the fallout generated by a series of innocuous but ill-advised emails he sent to his former paralegal in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Last week, a federal appeals court in Chicago cited the emails as the reason for vacating a prison sentence imposed by Bruce. As a consequence of the court’s unanimous decision, James Atwood of Kankakee will be re-sentenced by a different judge.
It is unclear how many other criminal sentences Bruce imposed will be remanded for new hearings as a consequence of the Oct. 24 decision.
In May 2018, Bruce imposed a 210-month prison sentence on the 33-year-old Atwood for two federal drug crimes and 96 months of concurrent imprisonment for a third crime.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Atwood faced a sentencing range of 188 to 235 months. The sentence ordered by Bruce fell just about in the middle of the recommended range.
An alleged leader of the Latin Kings, Atwood pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine and use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug transaction.
He was among four gang members who were taken into custody as the result of an investigation by the Kankakee Project Safe Neighborhoods Task Force. In addition to the arrests, authorities recovered firearms and cocaine.
At the same time as his sentencing in federal court, Atwood also faced charges in state court that stemmed from a drive-by shooting.
It’s hard to imagine that any new sentence for Atwood will be much different than the one Bruce imposed. Nonetheless, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel of Justices — Diane Wood, Amy Coney Barrett and Michael Kanne — said re-sentencing is required because “allowing Atwood’s sentence to stand would undermine the public’s confidence in the fairness of the sentence and in the impartiality of the judiciary.”
In opposing re-sentencing, federal prosecutors conceded Bruce’s “ex parte correspondence invited doubt about his impartiality.” But they contended it amounted to “harmless error.”
The emails included 2016 exchanges between Bruce and Lisa Hopps, an employee in the U.S. Attorney’s Springfield office.
She worked as a paralegal for Bruce, who was a federal prosecutor before being appointed to fill the federal judgeship at the Urbana courthouse.
In one of the Bruce/Hopps exchanges, he complained about the poor performance of a novice assistant U.S. attorney who was helping prosecute an international kidnapping case involving an Urbana woman, Sarah Nixon, who took her daughter to Canada to avoid turning the child over to the child’s father.
They also mused about a going-away party for former U.S. Attorney Jim Lewis that Bruce was unable to attend. Going over roughly 100 emails, the appellate judges said they “mostly addressed ministerial matters, but they often showed Judge Bruce cheering on office employees and addressing them by nicknames.”
The appellate court noted that Bruce “never explicitly mentioned Atwood’s case.”
After the emails became public, Judge Bruce’s criminal caseload was reassigned while the Judicial Council reviewed the matter.
Bruce continued to preside over his civil docket, and his criminal caseload was restored on Sept. 1. He was admonished by the Judicial Council for engaging in “ex parte” communications with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
In this instance, an ex parte communication is communication between a judge and a party to a legal proceeding outside of the presence of the opposing party’s attorney.
The court’s ruling showed how sensitive the federal courts are about appearances of impropriety, even appearances that reveal no impropriety.
It said that upholding Atwood’s sentence “creates a risk of unfairness to him” while there is “little risk of unfairness to the government” if Atwood is re-sentenced. It also found that re-sentencing Atwood would encourage “judges to exercise caution in their communications.” Finally, it said re-sentencing is necessary to protect the courts’ reputation for impartiality.
As a consequence of his email experience, Bruce no longer entertains unofficial inquiries from either prosecution or defense lawyers. He requires all communication to be through written motions. He also has terminated his in-court contacts with a number of parties to the email dispute, including federal prosecutors and federal public defenders.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.