Legal Ethics

Abner Mikva Chastises Prosecutors for Publicity in High-Profile Cases #ABAChicago

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Retired federal judge Abner J. Mikva, who heads up a panel investigating clout in the admissions process at the University of Illinois, decried the growing practice by prosecutors of holding press conferences to announce indictments and other developments in high-profile corruption cases.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, came under particular criticism from Mikva and other speakers at a panel during the ABA Annual Meeting on Thursday for his handling of publicity in connection with the arrest and indictment of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on federal corruption charges. Blagojevich left office earlier this year after being convicted in impeachment proceedings by the Illinois General Assembly.

The problem, said Mikva, speaking at a program sponsored by the ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, is that publicity by prosecutors tends to sway public opinion and taints the potential jury pool. In the case of Blagojevich, whose travails have attracted worldwide attention, that tainted jury pool might be more the size of an ocean, suggested Mikva, who was chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia before retiring from the bench.

“Where in the world can you find a neutral jury to hear the Blagojevich trial?”, asked Mikva. “He’s got to go elsewhere than me to find a friend, but he’s entitled to a fair trial.”

Still, Mikva was quick to praise Fitzgerald for his overall handling of a number of high-profile corruption cases in Illinois. “I think very highly of Pat Fitzgerald, and he has done an outstanding job,” said Mikva. Publicity related to cases “is maybe our biggest disagreement. But if that’s the only disagreement I have with a prosecutor, we’re both in great shape.”

Mikva kept a low profile for much of the program as other speakers discussed how prosecutors handle public corruption investigations. When he finally did speak, about halfway through the 90-minute program, Mikva referred to the issue that is occupying his time right now.

“I thought you invited me to tell the audience how to get their kids into the University of Illinois,” he joked.

That investigation didn’t come up again, though, until Mikva was peppered by questions from local reporters after the program. His Admissions Review Commission appointed by Gov. Patrick Quinn is expected to issue its report by early next week. Mikva said the report will cover alleged clout-related admissions to the university’s law school, but it did not find any questionable admissions practices at the medical school.

His own view, said Mikva, is that the university’s trustees “all should offer their resignations, and Gov. Quinn should start out with a new body of his own choices.” But he added that the full commission has not decided whether to make that recommendation.

The commission found that some efforts to influence admissions take place at other schools, but nowhere does it appear to be as extensive as the University of Illinois. “Unfortunately, Illinois, as always, carried the process to an extreme,” he said.

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