Former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s embezzlement case is proving just how small Washington's legal world can be.
The first judge randomly assigned to the case in Washington's federal trial court has now recused himself. Today in court, the second judge—also randomly assigned—took extra measures to air her connections to the lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson Berman, a former white-collar criminal defense attorney at Trout Cacheris, listed her connections during the first status conference on the case since it was assigned to her April 16. President Barack Obama appointed Jackson to the bench in March 2011.
"There are a lot of longstanding relationships I wanted to put on the record," Judge Jackson said during the hearing. But none of these are social connections (no dinner parties, she said). "I don’t think any of them warrant my recusal."
First, the lead defense attorneys: Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, litigation partners at Steptoe & Johnson. Judge Jackson said she has known Weingarten "for some time" through the white-collar defense bar. Weingarten described it after the hearing as seeing "Amy" at professional gatherings. Judge Jackson she said she has worked with Heberlig, who leads Steptoe's white-collar criminal defense practice. (The judge didn't elaborate how or when she worked with Heberlig.)
Another member of Jackson Jr.'s defense team, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., who recently joined the case, was one of Judge Jackson's references during her consideration for appointment to the federal bench. "I've known Mr. Ogletree longer than either of us want to admit," the judge said Friday.
Judge Jackson said she and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Atkinson, a lead prosecutor in the corruption case against the former Illinois congressman, previously worked on opposite sides of a "prominent" case. The judge didn't identify the matter.
One possibility: Atkinson was a member of the Justice Department team that prosecuted former Louisiana Representative William Jefferson in a corruption case. Judge Jackson, then at Trout Cacheris, represented Jefferson. In 2009, the former congressman was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
The Jesse Jackson case was reassigned to Judge Jackson just days after Ogletree joined the defense team. The first judge assigned to the case, Robert Wilkins, a former Venable partner who also was appointed to the bench by Obama, presided over the guilty plea. Wilkins withdrew from the case on April 16 without elaboration.
Ogletree told the Chicago Tribune that he and Wilkins, a former student of his at Harvard, know each other well, and that Wilkins may have recused himself out of caution. That wasn't Wilkins' only connection to the case, however.
Wilkins had warned the parties in a memo that, as a student at Harvard law in 1988, he served as a co-chair of the student group that was supporting the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, Sr., the defendant's father.
In the memo, Wilkins also said that in 1999 he "appeared as a guest on a show hosted by Rev. Jackson on the CNN network entitled 'Both Sides with Jesse Jackson' to discuss a civil rights lawsuit." The judge said he gave both defendants the chance to request a new judge "out of an abundance of caution."
Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandra, who is charged in a separate but related offense, have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for July 1. Jackson, an Illinois Democrat who spent 17 years in Congress before resigning last year, faces a sentencing guideline range of between 46 and 57 months in prison.
Prosecutors said Friday the two sides have been trying to resolve an issue over how the defense team plans to present evidence that Jackson Jr.'s mental health problems.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Graves said the government is entitled to discovery for any records used by experts who give opinions about the former congressman’s mental health, and the prosecution may even want to have their own expert evaluate him.
Weingarten said it's no secret that Jackson Jr. is bipolar and under the care of a psychologist, and the defense will include that in the sentencing memo, not as a cause for the criminal actions. "We pleaded guilty, we did not plead not guilty by reason of insanity," Weingarten said.
Judge Jackson did not make a ruling on the issue, saying only that she is required to consider the defendant’s mental health. She said this issue needs to "unfold a little bit" to see exactly what the defense plans to use at the July 1 sentencing hearing.