Judges have tossed convictions in two cases overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce, a former prosecutor whose coziness with former colleagues in the U.S. attorney's office earned him an admonishment last year from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
In one case, the appeals court on Aug. 10 erased the conviction of Earl Orr, a felon whom a jury found guilty of possessing a firearm discovered during a 2016 drug raid in Urbana. In throwing out Orr's conviction, the appellate court found that Bruce had exercised discretion in allowing testimony that established Orr had been convicted of drug charges and had thousands of dollars' worth of cocaine in his apartment and therefore had a motive to keep a pistol handy. While Bruce didn't necessarily make the wrong call, his relationships with former co-workers in the prosecutor's office coupled with his ruling created an appearance that could undermine public confidence in the judiciary if the conviction stood, the court ruled.
Bruce's closeness with former colleagues is catalogued in emails exchanged between the judge and employees of the U.S. attorney's office that came to light in 2018, after the judge accused prosecutors, particularly assistant U.S. attorney Tim Bass, of misleading him in a criminal case against former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock that ultimately fizzled. After being blistered by Bruce, Bass discovered that the judge had been exchanging emails with a paralegal in the prosecutor's office, at one point setting odds for acquittal in a pending trial, unrelated to the Schock case, over which the judge was presiding. Bass complained to the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, and he also complained about management in the U.S. attorney's office, alleging there were "reasonable grounds" to investigate whether Bruce and top lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office had sabotaged the Schock case and forced his removal from the prosecutorial team.
An investigation revealed several questionable emails between Bruce and employees in the U.S. attorney's office – unrelated to the Schock case -- including messages of congratulations to federal prosecutors who successfully handled appeals of cases, including one tried in Bruce's court.
Emails also showed that Bruce, after becoming a judge, discussed workings within the U.S. attorney's office with employees ranging from paralegals to former U.S. attorney Jim Lewis. "Just had a hilarious lunch with JAL (Jim Lewis)," Bruce wrote in a 2015 email to Lisa Hopps, a paralegal in the prosecutors' office. "Wow. There are still lots of problems in the USAO, caused by the usual suspects."
Citing such emails, U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid on Aug. 19 tossed the kidnapping conviction of Sarah Nixon, who was sentenced to 26 months in prison. During her 2017 trial, Bruce had called Nixon's testimony "bullshit" in an email to a paralegal in the prosecutor's office. In the email, the judge also criticized the performance of a prosecutor in the case and opined that what had been a slam-dunk for prosecutors had become a 60-40 proposition in favor of the defendant, who argued that she took her daughter to Canada despite a court order awarding custody to her ex-husband because she feared abuse.
In admonishing Bruce last year, a council of judges appointed by the Seventh Circuit found no evidence that Bruce's relationships with former colleagues had any bearing on his decisions as a judge. But Shadid in his ruling that erased Nixon's conviction wrote that the defendant, by citing the judge's emails, had raised serious questions about impartiality.
"Judge Bruce repeatedly and consistently inserted himself into the internal affairs of the USAO: he often critiqued the performance of various (assistant U.S. attorneys); he provided recommendations for USAO employees he favored and sought to influence the USAO's employment decisions; he offered unsolicited advice on who should manage the office and how; he encouraged more prosecutions; he expressed his preference for certain federal agents over others; he stated his approval of the USAO's arguments supporting his rulings on appeal; and he sent unsolicited emails to USAO staff gloating about the 'score' between him and AUSA Bass, who he regularly disparaged," Shadid wrote. "(A)ny defendant sitting in Ms. Nixon's position is exceedingly unlikely to think the judge presiding over her case is neutral. In fact, fears about Judge Bruce's impartiality were not limited to criminal defendants; here, defendant has produced extraordinary evidence that at least one prosecutor within the USAO also believed 'Judge Bruce's prior employment in [the USAO] and his close relationships and ongoing contacts with interim management of the office created a conflict of interest.'"
In an email to Illinois Times, Nixon praised her lawyers and criticized Bruce. "His emails expose an entrenched contempt and bias against criminal defendants, and women especially, along with conceited disdain for the judicial code of conduct," Nixon wrote. "He seems like the poster boy for judicial misconduct. "
Lewis, former U.S. attorney, has a different view.
Emails show that Lewis and Bruce lunched together several times after Bruce became a judge. On the day of one such lunch, Bruce sent an email to a legal assistant hoping for a promotion. "I took care of it for you," the judge wrote. "You're a lock for the paralegal spot."
Lewis says that emails can be misunderstood: He made decisions on his own.
"It is true that Judge Bruce and I did have lunch from time to time," Lewis says. "We were friends. In none of those lunches did I discuss his judgments, and in none of those lunches did he discuss how to run the office."
Lewis said he hadn't read Shadid's opinion throwing out Nixon's conviction. In a follow-up email, the former federal prosecutor wrote that he'd found and read the ruling.
"Looking back, I did maintain a friendship with Judge Bruce, and I should have realized that everything I did was official, nothing was private, while I was United States attorney, and so I should have maintained more formal distance," Lewis wrote.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.