I-Team Report: Driving the Docket

May 2, 2012 8:35:04 PM PDT
The modern system of assigning federal cases to judges is intended to be random to prevent what is called "judge shopping" that occurs in some local courts where lawyers try to direct cases to or from certain judges.

"We have over 10,000 cases filed in our district every year," said Thomas Bruton, clerk of the court. "We have 22 authorized judges. Roughly, doing simple math, you're looking at 27 cases a day coming in our door."

Most are routine.

Then there are those cases featuring the notable and the notorious: businessmen; hoodlums and aldermen; police and judges; legislators; governors and more governors.

Officiating a so-called heater case also puts the judge on public display: in court sketches, photographed coming and going, sometimes even videoed on the ball field, thrust into the limelight, purely by chance.

Until 2005 federal judges here were assigned cases using a deck of custom playing cards.

"Cards that would have the judges' names and be sealed so a case assignment clerk wouldn't know who the next in line was, so they would peel away the cover of the card and that would give the new judge's name for each case that came in the door," said Burton. "Unlike years past, when that was done with decks of cards, this is now fully automated."

The automated "case management/electronic case filing system" is used here in Chicago and across the country.

Former Chicago Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Cramer, now with a private firm, says the judge assigned to a case does make a difference.

"It's similar as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, you're waiting to see who that judge is who gets your case," said Jeff Cramer, Kroll Advisory Solutions. "And it's not necessarily going to affect the evidence, that's obviously already been recovered, but you do have an idea how certain judges react to certain evidence. Certain judges, they have different temperaments."

But federal judges aren't assigned by personality. In most cases the computer decides using this information provided by the filing attorney:

-how complicated a case is
-how many defendants there are
-and whether there is a conspiracy allegation

But if assignment is random, how did Judge James Zagel end up with four high-profile cases in row? The Operation Family Secrets mob case; former Governor Rod Blagojevich's prosecutions; Springfield power broker Bill Cellini; and now Cook County Commissioner William Beavers.

"The fact that he got Family Secrets, extremely high-profile case, and then the Blagojevich cases if you will, is probably an anomaly more than anything," said Cramer.

"Each judge has about 460 cases assigned to them at any one time," said Burton. "So, there may be cases such as terrorism, there may be drug cartel cases, there may be bank robbery cases. It's the news media that will define what's actually a high-profile case and not the case itself."

There are numerous exceptions to the random, computer-driven assignments. Under local court rules-an executive committee of judges may assign cases and so can the district's chief judge, James Holderman.

"Neither the prosecutor or the defense nor the chief judge of any district should be allowed to have their finger on the scale, and that's not done here, to determine which judge is going to get which case," Cramer said. "It has to be anonymous in order for the public to have confidence that this case is being decided by a judge that is not predetermined."

Judge Zagel ended up with both the Bill Cellini and Rod Blagojevich cases when prosecutors added the former governor to the existing Cellini corruption indictment, a tactic that raised some eyebrows in legal circles.

Chief Judge Holderman declined to be interviewed for this story.

U.S. District Court/Chicago website:

Chicago Bar Association
Interview with Chief Judge James Holderman, concerning operation of Northern District of Illinois Court: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCsSrDIYwmQ

Northern District of Illinois
Internal Operating Procedures

IOP02. Executive Committee

(a) Duties & Responsibilities. This Court shall administer and conduct its business by action of its Executive Committee. The Executive Committee shall prescribe its own rules of procedure. Each of the members other than the non-voting members shall have one vote. The presiding chief judge or acting chief judge may vote in the case of a tie.

The members of the Executive Committee shall meet not less than once a month, except as they otherwise determine. Such meetings shall be prior to the regular monthly meetings of the Court. The chief judge may call the members of the Committee to attend a special meeting where a ruling of the Committee is required and such ruling cannot be delayed until the next scheduled regular meeting.

The Executive Committee shall report a summary of its actions and activities to the Court at regularly scheduled meetings of the judges. Decisions and actions of the Executive Committee taken on behalf of the Court may be approved or disapproved by a majority of the judges of the Court.

(b) Composition of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee shall be composed of the chief judge, the acting chief judge, four regular active judges of the Court, the presiding magistrate judge, and the clerk of the Court. The chief judge, the acting chief judge, the presiding magistrate judge, and the clerk will be non-voting members of the Executive Committee. The chief judge or, in the absence of the chief judge, the acting chief judge, shall preside over the meetings of the Executive Committee. The clerk shall serve as secretary to the Executive Committee.

Membership in the Executive Committee shall be rotated among the regular active judge of the Court in order of seniority. Except as otherwise provided by this section, the term of each regular active judge other than one holding non-voting membership shall start on 15 September and end on 14 September four years later. As the term of such a member of the Executive Committee expires or terminates for any reason, the regular active judge with the most seniority who has not served on the Executive Committee shall become a member. When all the regular active judges of the Court have served one term, membership shall be rotated on the basis of seniority of the active judges then members of this Court, provided that the chief judge may not serve as both a four year term member and ex officio. When a judge assumes an unexpired term vacated by another judge, that judge shall serve for four years starting on the day following the last day of service of the judge who failed to complete a four year term.