Judge steps down in jail guards' suitSheahan had accused U.S. jurist of bias
Friday, March 17, 2006
by Michael Higgins
In an unusual ruling, a federal judge on Thursday agreed to step down from a case in which Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan had accused him of bias, but not before the judge reiterated sharp criticism of county officials.
U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo made clear that he didn't agree with Sheahan and other sheriff's officials who questioned whether he could be fair in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed against them.
But Castillo said that, under the law, he had to recuse himself if he had done anything that would make a reasonable observer question his impartiality.
Castillo said he has had second thoughts about comments he made at a court hearing in February, in which he said the county's continued spending to fight the case resembled public corruption.
"Upon reflection, the court fully admits these statements were unfortunate and contain some unusually harsh rhetoric," Castillo wrote in a 39-page opinion. He said the statements, combined with other disputes with defense lawyers, made it appropriate for him to step down.
Two former jail guards, Roger Fairley and Richard Gackowski, filed the lawsuit in 2003 against the county, Sheahan and other jail officials. The guards allege that they were subjected to harassment and threats, and eventually forced to resign, because they refused to cover up an alleged jail beating in 2000.
In several hearings, Castillo expressed frustration that the County Board's litigation subcommittee had not authorized the county's lawyers to negotiate a settlement. He called the county's ongoing legal fees a "misexpenditure of public funds."
Sheahan and other jail officers said Castillo went too far in February when he compared the legal fees with money lost through political corruption. "While this is not a public corruption case, any time taxpayer money is wasted, that, to me, is the equivalent of corruption," Castillo said at the hearing.
Sheahan and other defendants also argued that Castillo had frequently ruled against them in pretrial disputes.
Michael Hayes Sr., attorney for Sheahan and several other defendants, said Thursday that Castillo made the right call to step down. "It's unfortunate the case got to this point," Hayes said.
Plaintiffs' attorney Matthew Piers, who urged Castillo to stay on the case, said Thursday that changing judges would only further delay his clients' day in court.
"There is no question that the judge behaved appropriately," Piers said. "The things they're complaining about aren't even close calls."
Castillo lambasted the county's handling of the litigation Thursday.
"The public can rightly question the actions of all the public officials involved in this lawsuit and the manner in which this lawsuit has been defended," Castillo wrote. "Defendants' attorneys have gained financially from all of their behavior--some very questionable--without any apparent oversight by any Cook County officials."
In his opinion, Castillo also cited recent newspaper articles about a stabbing at the jail, a shooting at the jail, an inmate who escaped in a laundry truck, as well as older articles about the alleged cover-up of the beating of inmates.
"The public has a right to know what is really going on at the Cook County Jail," Castillo wrote. "Unfortunately, as recently publicized, the problem of prisoner and correctional officer safety continues."