News

Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018

Federal judge engaged in ex parte talk

Sent emails to U.S. attorney staff about pending case

A woman convicted of international parental kidnapping is asking for a new trial on the grounds that U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce sent emails to a paralegal in the U.S. attorney’s office about the case while her trial was in progress.

The emails sent during the 2016 trial by Bruce to Lisa Hopps, the paralegal, were critical of both federal prosecutors and the defendant.

“So far in this trial, in the over one-hour cross-examination, the

DOJ (Department of Justice) attorney has done a WONDERFUL job of repeating the bullshit the defendant said as if the defendant’s story was all fact,” the judge wrote during the trial that ended with Sarah Nixon being found guilty by a jury and sentenced to more than two years in prison by Bruce. “How about the BASIC cross-examination skill of saying ‘and then the ALLEGED event took place’ or ‘and then, SUPPOSEDLY, this happened’ or ‘so ACCORDING TO YOUR STORY….’ This trial went from a slam-dunk for the prosecution to about a 60-40 for the defendant, and there is more cross-examination to go.”

That was just one of a half-dozen exchanges on official work email accounts between Hopps and the judge while trial was in progress, apparently in violation of judicial canons barring ex parte communications on pending cases. While the messages were sent in December of 2016, they only recently came to light, according to a May 30 letter sent from Patrick Hansen, first assistant U.S. attorney, to Nixon’s lawyer who represented her during an appeal of her conviction. Neither Nixon nor Sarah O’Rourke Shrup, her attorney, could immediately be reached for comment.

“We have no information suggesting that this exchange was shared or made known to the trial team,” Hansen wrote in the May letter to Shrup. “Nevertheless, in the exercise of due caution, we are notifying you of the exchange, and enclosing the communication to you at this time.”

Hansen’s letter and copies of the emails were included in a request for a new trial filed Tuesday by Nixon on a pro se basis. According to Nixon’s motion, the emails were sent during a weekend while trial was in progress. Nixon writes that the judge erred in barring testimony from expert witnesses for the defense and that the emails constitute material evidence that could help her case.

“The evidence would probably lead to an acquittal in the event of a new trial,” Nixon wrote in her motion. “In the emails, Judge Bruce expressed undisguised prejudice and contempt for the defendant’s truthful testimony, and offered his opinion of it as worthless (‘garbage.’)”

Nixon included the emails as exhibits in her motion for a new trial filed Tuesday, but Bruce struck her motion from the record today, saying that because she is represented by a lawyer on her pending appeal, she has no right to file a pro se brief in any court. While Nixon’s motion remains available, the emails between Bruce and Hopps she filed as an exhibit on Tuesday have disappeared from the court docket, with the notation “Restricted” appearing where records would otherwise be available on the electronic docket. Judge Bruce also sealed a June 23 motion by Nixon to supplement the court record, presumably to allow the introduction of the judge’s emails exchanged with Hopps. Bruce also sealed a June 27 order he issued, denying Nixon’s motion to supplement the court record.

It’s not clear why the emails, sent in late 2016, have only now come to light. The U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately respond to emailed questions.

The matter could spread to other cases, according to Dan Fultz, a Springfield defense attorney. Defense lawyers who had cases overseen by Bruce could ask that records be combed to ensure that the judge did not engage in ex parte communication with personnel from the U.S. attorney’s office while matters were pending, he said.

“If true, this is conduct by a federal judge that is almost hard to fathom,” Fultz said. “It’s shocking – I think anybody would tell you that. This is a serious transgression.”

Bruce joined the U.S. attorney’s office as a prosecutor after graduating from law school in 1989. He remained a federal prosecutor until 2013, when he was appointed to the federal bench in Urbana by President Barack Obama.

After being read Bruce’s emails to Hopps, Fultz said it seems clear that the judge was giving information to Hopps that he should have known could find its way to federal lawyers involved with the Nixon case. “In a trial where he has to call balls and strikes, he seems to be communicating to one side, saying ‘You may want to point out that this is not going the way it should,’” Fultz said. “It calls into question whether anybody’s going to get a fair trial. I think it calls into question everything he does. As a defense attorney, this is frustrating. I think you’d be doing your client a disservice if you didn’t ask questions. ”

Among other matters, Bruce is overseeing the case against former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, who is accused of fraud, theft of government funds and filing false tax returns. Attorneys for Schock could not immediately be reached for comment to determine whether they are aware of the judge’s comments in the Nixon case and what bearing, if any, the judge’s conduct in the Nixon case might have on the Schock case.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com


EMAILS BETWEEN JUDGE BRUCE AND LISA HOPPS, PARALEGAL IN U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE


From: Hopps, Lisa

To: Bruce, Colin

Sent: Friday, December 16, 2016, 4:26 p.m.

Subject: Jim's Farewell


And just WHERE WERE YOU today?????


Lisa Hopps


From: Bruce, Colin

To: Hopps, Lisa

Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2016, 2:11 p.m.

Subject: RE: Jim's Farewell


Trial. Elly.


Where evidently the Elly and Co. decided they did not want to win by letting an entirely inexperienced DOJ attorney cross examine THE DEFENDANT. (Here are some words she evidently does not know: "alleged' "supposedly" "your story")


Are you ever going to come over here and do another trial?


From: Hopps, Lisa

To: Bruce, Colin

Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2016, 4:00 p.m.

Subject: RE: Jim's Farewell


Are you kidding me?!?! Wow. Never. (sad-face emoticon). Staci is the paralegal in training over there so I'm o-u-t.


From: Bruce, Colin

To: Hopps, Lisa

Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2016, 5:10 p.m.

Subject: RE: Jim's Farewell


Damn it! I could use a little Lisa Hopps in the courtroom just to see you. Staci is doing a good job, so you trained her well.


So far in this trial, in the over one hour cross-examination, the DOJ attorney has done a WONDERFUL job of repeating the bullshit the defendant said as if the defendant's story was all fact.


How about the BASIC cross-examination skill of saying "and then the ALLEGED event took place" or "and then, SUPPOSEDLY, this happened" or "so ACCORDING TO YOUR STORY...."


This trial went from a slam-dunk for the prosecution to about a 60-40 for the defendant, and there is more cross-examination to go...…


From: Hopps, Lisa

To: Bruce, Colin

Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2016, 7:55 p.m.

Subject: RE: Jim's Farewell


DITTO my friend! She is, I'm happy for her. OMG. How do you sit through that? I can just see you looking like you're bored to death, but on the inside you're cracking yourself up with jokes! I would NOT be able to make eye contact with you. hahahahaha


From: Bruce, Colin

To: Hopps, Lisa

Sent: Sunday, December 18, 2016, 12:45 p.m.

Subject: RE: Jim's Farewell


I work hard not to try any of the cases.

I actually have a sign on the bench from Judge Baker that says "DO NOT TRY THE CASE".


When I'm not making internal jokes or when I'm not completely bored, lots of times I am cringing.


I really cringed when the inexperienced DOJ attorney starting (sic) crossing the defendant in this case..

During this cross-examination, I keep wanting to say, "Seriously? That is your plan? Repeat the testimony of the defendant as though it was fact and then say, 'Right?'"


And if you were in the courtroom, yes, I would be giving you looks that would make you crack-up.

Federal judge engaged in ex parte talk

© 2019 IllinoisTimes. All Rights Reserved.
Powered by WEHAA.COM
Normal Site