Blagojevich trial, Judge James Zagel, Blagojevich trial judge, Money to Burn, Zagel novel, Chicago legal community, State Cabinet posts
Blagojevich trial, Judge James Zagel, Blagojevich trial judge
From the Chicago Tribune May 17, 2010.
“Blagojevich trial judge regarded as smart, unflappable”
“Do you ever wonder what spins through a judge’s head while lawyers and witnesses drone on endlessly for days and weeks at trial?
In the case of U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel, who is scheduled to preside over the sweeping corruption trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a little more than two weeks, there’s a good chance those thoughts sometimes drift to grandly larcenous fantasies.
How else to explain “Money to Burn,” the well-received 2002 novel penned by Zagel about a federal judge who masterminds an audacious heist at the super-secure Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago? (Spoiler alert: The judge gets away with millions of dollars.)
Zagel may have an active imagination, but his broad list of admirers in Chicago’s legal community view that as just another example of why he is regarded as one of the smartest and most unflappable jurists at the federal courthouse.
“He is definitely one of those people who can do the job well with half of his attention,” veteran lawyer Joel Bertocchi said of Zagel, who has had parts in two Hollywood movies and whose broad interests range from jazz to target shooting with court security officers.
At 69, and with more than two decades on the federal bench, Zagel boasts a resume to qualify him as one of the most interesting men in Chicago. He helped prosecute mass murderer Richard Speck, twice held state Cabinet posts and was once married to TV investigative reporter Pam Zekman.
As a jurist, he also moonlights on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that decides whether to issue warrants for electronic eavesdropping on terrorism suspects.
In 1965, after graduating from the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School, Zagel joined the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where he helped gain the conviction of Speck, the notorious killer of eight student nurses on the city’s Southeast Side.
From 1970 to 1977, Zagel ran the criminal division of the Illinois attorney general’s office. One of his assistants was Jayne Carr, who would later marry Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson. As a colleague, Jayne Thompson said, Zagel was hard-driving, meticulous with the law and possessed of an “encyclopedic memory.”
“He can sit down and write a legal pleading and fill in the citations, including the page numbers, without bringing out a book,” she recalled.
Zagel eventually went to work in Thompson’s administration, first as director of the Department of Revenue and then as head of what was then known as the Department of Law Enforcement.”
“Zagel was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, and while his law enforcement background has given him a reputation for leaning toward the government’s view, he is widely viewed by members of the defense bar as predictable and fair.”
“Halprin, who represented mob boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo, said Zagel did a good job managing a case with colorful lawyers in a circuslike atmosphere — a climate likely to be repeated in the Blagojevich case, which features a star defendant and legal team with flairs for the dramatic.”
“In 2008, Zagel was appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to a seven-year term on the intelligence court.”
“The judge, said Bertocchi, “will want the result of this trial to speak well of the legal system.””
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