clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Veteran judge who once kept Oprah on a jury assigned Jussie Smollett case

Son of a judge, nephew of one of the world’s richest men, James Linn has spent 30 years on the bench in Cook County.

Actor Jussie Smollett walks out of one courtroom after his case was assigned to Cook County Judge James Linn at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on February 24, 2020.
Actor Jussie Smollett walks out of one courtroom after his case was assigned to Cook County Judge James Linn at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on February 24, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In a case that gained national attention, in part, over allegations that a celebrity was granted special treatment, those critical of the handling of the Jussie Smollett criminal matter can take heart that the “Empire” actor’s latest case landed before Cook County Judge James Linn Monday.

Even when celebrities aren’t the defendants, Linn has asserted the rich and famous have no more rights than anyone else — just ask Oprah Winfrey, who tried to beg off jury duty in a murder trial in Linn’s courtroom some 15 years ago.

Near the peak of her popularity, then-Chicago resident Winfrey told a throng of reporters that she doubted she’d be picked from the jury pool for the 2004 trial of Dion Coleman. Prosecutors and Coleman’s lawyers said they thought the talk show host would be a distraction. But neither side opted to toss the world’s most popular talk show host off the jury, and Linn wasn’t interested in letting Winfrey out of her civic duty.

“I’m not going to say that somebody is too important in our society to be a member of a jury,” Linn told the lawyers then. “I have no concern at all that the stars of this trial are going to be the trial lawyers and the overriding personalities are going to be the lawyers and, to some extent, even the court.”

Winfrey wound up voting with the other jurors to convict Coleman, whom Linn later sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Linn got Smollett’s latest case on the third draw Monday in the random judge selection process overseen by Chief Criminal Courts Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. The first judge selected was Judge William Gamboney, but he was out sick. The next random pick was Judge Diane Cannon, who was also ill.

Martin, who handles the daily case assignment call, wanted Smollett’s disorderly conduct case — and the horde of reporters who descended on 26th Street for his arraignment — to go to a courtroom where the judge was available Monday.

Linn first was appointed to the bench in 1989 after working as a prosecutor. His father, David Linn, was a state Appellate Court justice.

In his 30 years on the bench, Linn presided over his share of high-profile cases, though Smollett’s tale of an alleged hoax hate crime attack makes the case a “heater” the likes of which the city has never seen.

Chicago native Linn is regarded as a fair judge among his peers.

Monday Linn showed a little impatience with Smollett’s Los Angeles-based lawyer, Tina Glandian — as Smollett’s legal team pursued an appeal to the state Supreme Court — by cautioning her not to make a demand for speedy trial that would bind Smollett to a trial date before his lawyers received any of the evidence.

Smollett had claimed that he was attacked in 2019 by two men near his Streeterville home, who shouted that the black, openly gay actor had wandered into “MAGA country”— a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

Linn may have some insight into Trump’s supporters. His wife, luxury real estate broker Pamela Linn, has made multiple donations to Trump’s various campaign organizations since 2016, including a maximum $2,800 personal donation to the Trump Victory Fund in October, according to Federal Election Commission records. Judge Linn appears to have made no donations to Trump or any candidates for federal office, and his political contributions locally have gone to fellow candidates for judge and, in 2010, to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Pat Quinn.

A relative Linn occasionally refers to as “Uncle Larry” also is a major Trump backer: Oracle founder Larry Ellison, is the adopted brother of Linn’s late mother, Doris. The billionaire tech mogul, who is just five years younger than Linn, last week held a fundraiser for the president at his California home, with a required $250,000 donation for attendees.

Lawyers who practice at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse regularly credit Linn for agreeing to fair plea agreements and for occasionally handing out stiff sentences, though neither scenario seemed likely to be a factor in Smollett’s case based on Monday’s hearing. Smollett’s lawyers pledged not to make a plea deal, and, even if found guilty, the disorderly conduct charges facing Smollett carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Monday morning, Feb. 24, 2020.
Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Monday morning, Feb. 24, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times