Experts call Hastert judge ‘fair’ as lawyers consider disqualification

SHARE Experts call Hastert judge ‘fair’ as lawyers consider disqualification

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse Tuesday in Chicago after his arraignment on federal charges. | AP Photo/Christian K. Lee

The judge presiding over Dennis Hastert’s case gave a lengthy list of reasons this week to disqualify himself from the most high-profile proceeding at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

But U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin also gave the former U.S. House speaker’s defense attorneys and prosecutors until Thursday afternoon to keep the case in his courtroom anyway. And local experts think both sides have a pretty good reason to do it: He’s fair.

“He’s known as someone who calls balls and strikes,” Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the Chicago office of Kroll Inc., said.

Durkin acknowledged a series of conflicts a “reasonable” person might perceive when Hastert finally appeared in his courtroom for arraignment Tuesday. Hastert pleaded not guilty during that hearing to the May 28 indictment that charged him with skirting banking laws and lying to the FBI.

The judge noted he gave $1,500 in donations while in private practice to Hastert’s campaign, that he worked with Hastert’s son at the Mayer Brown law firm, and that he sent an email to a Hastert staffer in the 1990s seeking a position on the federal bench — and never heard back. Durkin’s brother is also the Republican leader of the Illinois House of Representatives.

“The defendant is not a personal friend of my brother,” Durkin said Tuesday. The judge added that he believed he had never met Hastert himself.

So while the judge disqualified himself from the case, he gave the lawyers until 4 p.m. Thursday to waive that disqualification. And that deadline marks the next step in Hastert’s criminal case. If either side decides not to file a waiver, the record will be sealed, so Durkin will not know who wanted him off the case.

The waivers are to be delivered to U.S. District Court Clerk Thomas Bruton.

Richard Kling, a clinical professor of law at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, said the judge’s move was rare. But he also said Durkin’s conflicts are “minimal.” The bottom line, he said, is that all of the judges at the federal courthouse are part of a “small legal world” and attained their positions through a political process.

“They all have been in the political system for God knows how many years,” said Kling, a practicing criminal defense attorney for more than 40 years.

Hastert is believed to be the highest-ranking Illinois politician ever to be criminally charged.

The Republican is accused of agreeing to pay $3.5 million in hush money to a longtime male acquaintance, which sources said was meant to cover up alleged sexual misconduct.

Kling said he’s sure both sides have been researching Durkin and have come to the conclusion that “he’s fair.” If one side decides not to waive Durkin’s disqualification, the case will be randomly reassigned. And while Cramer said the federal bench is “pretty deep,” he acknowledged there are some judges one side would rather appear before than the other.

“I think this judge is a fair judge for both parties,” Cramer said. “And that’s all you’re looking for.”

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