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Federal Judge James Holderman to retire June 1

Former U.S. District Chief Judge James Holderman will retire from the bench this spring after a judicial career that spanned three decades — from the days of “Operation Greylord” to the wiretapping of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“I look forward to new horizons,” Holderman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I will continue to be an active member of the profession. I hope to be able to assist people in the private sector.”

The former assistant U.S. attorney joined the federal court in 1985. He will mark his 30th anniversary May 1, but he won’t retire until June 1. Since joining the bench, he’s presided over cases involving former Cook County judges and organized crime bosses.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the way we provide judicial services,” Holderman said, reflecting on his 30 years on the bench.

He sometimes tangled with federal prosecutors. But during his seven-year tenure as chief judge beginning in July 2006, he also ruled on the U.S. attorney’s wiretapping applications, including its request to tap phone calls in the Blagojevich investigation.

“Judge Holderman has had an indelible impact on the Northern District of Illinois,” Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said in a statement. “He was a great innovator, leader and trial judge who was widely respected by all the judges who served this court.”

Defense attorney Joseph Lopez described Holderman as a “no-nonsense guy” who stuck to the facts, expected attorneys to be prepared and didn’t tolerate any twisting of the facts. He said he’s seen Holderman “come down” on prosecutors and make defense attorneys feel “two inches tall.”

“It wasn’t for no just reason, either,” Lopez said.

But critics once dubbed the judge a “Holdermaniac” for his temper. That was around the time a feud between the judge and then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office erupted 10 years ago over whether Holderman should be removed from a case.

However, Holderman also spared a juror from a three-day prison sentence roughly three years ago. The juror decided to tell another judge in a voicemail that he had to leave town for a business trip in the middle of a trial. After a public shaming, Holderman told the apologetic man, “I appreciate your sincerity” and instead ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine for blowing off jury duty, write an essay and speak at a legal symposium.

Clerk of Court Tom Bruton said Monday that Holderman “used his great energy to devote his life’s work to being a public servant.”

“He consistently demonstrated his leadership and tirelessly fought to protect those who worked with him and for him,” Bruton said in a statement. “Those of us who are fortunate enough to have worked with Judge Holderman know his passion for standing up for what is right, no matter if it is unpopular or difficult.”

A statement credited Holderman with overseeing renovations to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, expanding the Settlement Assistance Program, establishing the Judge James B. Moran Second Chance Re-entry Program and naming the Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow Day Care Center during his tenure as chief judge. Eight of the court’s 22 active district judges were also sworn in during that time.