By Ameet Sachdev and Ray Gibson | A federal appeals court said it took the extraordinary step this week of removing a judge from the middle of a criminal trial because the judge’s conduct showed bias against the prosecutors.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals explained Friday why three days earlier it ordered U.S. District Chief Judge James Holderman off the trial of a man facing drug charges. Their opinion blasted Holderman for his abuse of discretion and hostility toward prosecutors.
“No reasonable person would fail to perceive a significant risk that the judge’s rulings in the case might be influenced by his unreasonable fury toward the prosecutors,” the panel wrote.
A person answering the phone in Holderman’s office said the judge declined to comment.
The 7th Circuit decision came after U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald went to the appellate court last week to complain about the judge’s ruling against key fingerprint evidence against the defendant, Clacy Watson Herrera. In his petition, Fitzgerald also criticized the judge for being hostile toward his lawyers. But the U.S. attorney did not ask for Holderman’s dismissal.
There is a history of tension between the U.S. attorney’s office and Holderman, chief judge of the federal court in Chicago. In 2005, the appellate court had to intervene in a dispute after Holderman ordered a misconduct investigation of the U.S. attorney’s office. At that time, the federal appeals court ordered a halt to the judge’s inquiry.
The 7th Circuit panel noted the past disagreement in Friday’s decision, but it appears to have had no bearing on the appellate court’s action this week.
The appeals court said it took quick action this week because the defendant had moved for a mistrial over repeated delays in the trial due to disagreements between the prosecution and the judge. The panel reversed Holderman’s decision to exclude the fingerprint evidence, calling the judge’s ruling “patently unsound as to exceed the legitimate bounds of judicial power.”
The appeals court also took exception to the judge’s conduct.
“The transcript of the district judge’s remarks concerning the evidentiary issue reveals a degree of anger and hostility toward the government that is in excess of any provocation that we can find in the record,” the panel wrote.
Holderman repeatedly accused the government’s lawyers of lying. “He said, for example: ‘I don’t believe you when you say just about anything anymore because I know that you will lie to a court any time it helps you. I know that. I saw you do it. I know you will do that. You have proven that to me beyond a reasonable doubt,’” according to the opinion.
The 7th Circuit also denied the defendant’s petition for a rehearing of its Tuesday order.
The Herrera case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer. The trial is set to resume Monday, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
The spokesman declined further comment because the case is pending.