Editorial: Every federal judge has political baggage

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Every federal judge is a political appointee, therefore every federal judge has political baggage.

We just don’t always know what the baggage is.

What’s nice about U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, at least with respect to his relationship with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, is that we do know — and it looks like a reasonably light suitcase.

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Nonetheless, Durkin on Tuesday disqualified himself from presiding over Hastert’s trial, saying he would agree to hear the case only if attorneys for both sides waive the disqualification by 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Durkin should be commended for adhering to high ethical standards. Judges everywhere, take note.

If either side takes a pass on Durkin, choosing to gamble on a different judge, we suspect their concern won’t be judicial impartiality. Rather, they will have concluded that Durkin is generally too pro-prosecutor or too pro-defense.

Durkin’s political ties, all over town and mostly by way of his brothers, have been known for years. Brother Jim is the Republican leader of the Illinois House. Brother Terry is a prominent attorney. Brother Kevin is a partner with a major personal injury law firm.

Durkin filled in more details Tuesday, confirming a report of two donations totaling $1,500 to Hastert’s campaign fund more than ten years ago. He also said he wrote an email to a Hastert staffer in the 1990s seeking a job as a federal judge. President Obama appointed Durkin to the bench in 2012. As a lawyer, Durkin said, he once worked on a case with Hastert’s son.

In general, federal judges are less likely than county judges to be creatures of political parties, but the politics of their appointment can’t be denied.

Candidates are recommended to the president by a state’s two senators, with the senator of the president’s own party — if the two senators are of different parties — getting more picks. In Illinois, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk have a reputation for working together to recommend nominees who might gain bipartisan Senate confirmation.

As much as we admire Durkin for stepping aside, we can’t see how anybody can complain if he does preside over Hastert’s trial. His conflicts of interests are relatively minor, and we’ll all know just what we’re getting.

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