Business at the federal courthouse in Urbana will soon be back to normal.
It’s good to hear that Urbana-based U.S. Judge Colin Bruce will return to his full slate of duties Sept. 1, meaning he will resume hearing criminal cases as well as the civil cases currently on his docket.
Bruce has not been hearing criminal cases since August. That’s when the Illinois Times published a series of innocuous emails between the judge and a paralegal in the U.S. Attorney’s Office with whom he once worked.
Perceived as potentially improper ex parte communications between the judge and an employee in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bruce’s overseers in the federal courts essentially put him on double-secret probation while they investigated further. Ultimately, their investigation revealed the whole thing was much ado about very little, if even that.
There was at least one major consequence to the decision to sideline Bruce in criminal cases. Peoria-based U.S. Judge James Shadid took over the Brendt Christensen murder case for Bruce, moving the trial, now about to enter the sentencing phase, to Peoria.
There’s a backstory to this controversy.
The innocuous emails Bruce exchanged in late 2016 with his former paralegal, Lisa Hopps, initially involved an inquiry into why Bruce was unable to attend the retirement party of his former boss, onetime U.S. Attorney Jim Lewis. The conversation quickly turned to a criminal case Bruce was then hearing, a child-kidnapping case involving Urbana resident Sarah Nixon.
In the emails, Bruce complained about the in-court performance of one of the two federal prosecutors. Lawyers are notorious second-guessers, and Bruce made it clear he was not impressed with the prosecutor’s performance.
Flash forward months later to when Bruce was overseeing the now-dismissed criminal corruption case involving former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria.
The defense challenged the propriety of prosecution tactics during grand-jury proceedings, complaining prosecutors had made improper references to Schock’s failure to testify before the grand jury, something Schock was legally entitled to do.
Prosecutors Tim Bass and Patrick Hansen denied such comments. But those denials were contradicted after a review of grand-jury transcripts showed the prosecutors had made repeated improper references to Schock’s non-appearance before the grand jury.
Bruce chastised Bass for the misstatements, leading to Bass’ removal from the Schock prosecution team.
(Ultimately, the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., removed the entire Central District of Illinois from the Schock case, turning the prosecution over to Northern District prosecutors. They ultimately dismissed the case.)
Bass, obviously irritated by his removal from the case, subsequently learned from Hopps of Bruce’s email exchange with her in regards to the Nixon case. That led to copies of the emails being turned over to Nixon’s representatives and their publication in the Illinois Times.
Bruce’s federal overseers deserve credit for their legitimate concerns about the propriety of his email exchange. It speaks well of their determination that judges appear to be — and are — impartial arbiters.
At the same time, it’s abundantly clear the emails demonstrated no favoritism or animus toward any litigants appearing before Bruce.
That’s why the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit admonished Bruce about his email exchange and, basically, left it at that. Frankly, even this minor discipline seems excessive.
There is, however, a problem that has grown out of this fiasco.
Out of an abundance of caution, Bruce is barring any personal exchanges with either defense or prosecution lawyers regarding scheduling matters. That means that what once were informal, entirely above-board communications now must be addressed through formal motions to the court.
That’s just a waste of everyone’s valuable time, a bureaucratic exercise that irritates everyone and serves no one. The federal courthouse in Urbana is not the federal courthouse in Chicago, where more formal communication procedures are required.
It’s understandable that Bruce sees this defensive move as necessary to avoid any repetition of what he’s been through. But he would be well advised to reinstate the informal, more efficient and less costly scheduling practices that he once embraced and that worked well for all concerned before this email non-controversy caused him such a headache.