A guilty verdict in a criminal trial must be vacated because it was overseen by an Illinois federal judge previously sanctioned for having unrelated but outside-the-courtroom communications with members of the U.S. attorney’s office where he once worked, the Seventh Circuit said.
Upholding Earl Orr’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm would be unfair as Judge Colin Bruce’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office cast a pall over the trial, the opinion by Judge Michael B. Brennan said.
Bruce, before his appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, was an assistant U.S. attorney in that district and his continued relationship with the office was called to the attention of the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit.
Although there was no evidence that Bruce’s communications with his former office affected any particular case over which he presided, the council suspended him from handling any criminal matters for one year.
Defendants also have filed a wave of attacks to Bruce’s rulings in and oversight of their criminal cases, with the Seventh Circuit accepting some challenges and rejecting others.
One significant factor for the appeals court in Orr’s case was whether Bruce’s discretionary trial decisions tainted the proceedings.
The two rulings at issue were the admission of drug evidence found when Orr’s house was searched and the admission of details about his criminal record.
Bruce’s rulings against Orr weren’t routine and significantly aided the government’s case, which was based on circumstantial evidence, the Seventh Circuit said.
Bruce’s discretionary calls, which may have been based on personal biases, possibly influenced the outcome of the trial, the court said.
Upholding the verdict may also damage the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary, it said.
Judges Daniel A. Manion and David F. Hamilton joined the opinion.
May, Oberfell & Lorber represented Orr.
The case is United States v. Orr, 2020 BL 300491, 7th Cir., No. 19-1938, 8/10/20