Hastert case needs a different judge
© Getty Images

On top of the U.S. Supreme Court building, it proclaims "Equal justice under law." That says it all. That statement is the foundation of our American legal system.

The case of former Speaker of the House Dennis HastertJohn (Dennis) Dennis HastertFeehery: Surging Sanders puts House in range for Republicans Bottom line Overnight Energy: Experts criticize changes to EPA lead, copper rule | House panel looks into plan to limit powers of EPA science advisers | Senate bill aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 MORE (R-Ill.) is now being put to the test. The test is: Will his case be decided fairly or will it be violated by the wrong person remaining as the presiding judge? To his credit, federal Judge Thomas Durkin offered yesterday to recuse himself from the case if either of the parties wished him to do so. The parties have until today at 4 p.m. to register their decision.


As I related in a previous column, the grounds for recusal seem to me overwhelming. Durkin, before he was a judge and when he was in private practice, twice gave campaign contributions to Hastert. In addition, it now has been disclosed that Hastert's son, Ethan, and Durkin worked with each other while Durkin was in private practice at the law firm Mayer Brown. Previously, all that had been known was that they were both partners at Mayer Brown.

Last week, I attempted to find out if Ethan Hastert and Durkin worked on cases together. There was "one matter," according to Durkin, speaking from the bench, where he worked with Ethan Hastert; they also took three or four work-related trips together. In addition, Durkin also said that he contacted one of Dennis Hastert's staffers in the mid-1990s, seeking a judgeship. Durkin did volunteer that he has never met Dennis Hastert.

Last week, I contacted Mayer Brown's manager of public affairs, Britt Poulos, in Mayer Brown's Chicago office. She initially told me that she would get back to me with the dates of employment of both Durkin and Hastert. She also told me that she would, if she were allowed to, tell me if Ethan Hastert and Durkin had worked on cases together. I never heard back from her. She did mention, in our only conversation, the firm's director of public relations, John Tuerck; I called him as well. When I identified myself, he immediately hung up on me. I called back, got his answering message and called his cellphone number, which was provided. He never called back.

Obviously the law firm of Mayer Brown in no way wanted to be forthcoming or cooperative in supplying any information concerning Durkin and Ethan Hastert. A spokesman for the firm this week said there was "no comment at this time" on all the questions I asked.

The ball is now in U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon's court. I cannot see how Fardon can do anything but take up Durkin's offer to recuse himself. Durkin has done the right thing; Fardon must now do the right thing. Many legal experts have said that the Hastert case will never go to trial. The disgraced Hastert does not want the unseemly, gory details of his private life made public in open court. If there is a plea bargain by Hastert, Durkin will, as I said last week, be the sentencing judge. He, by his own admission, has disclosed that his "impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

So why should this be allowed to continue? U.S. Attorney Fardon should uphold the mighty central principle of "Equal justice under law" and insist that Judge Durkin not be the judge in this case. This case should be randomly assigned to another judge. If Fardon does not take up Durkin's offer, then this case will forever be tainted and every party in this case compromise.

An editorial error has been corrected in this piece; the 4 p.m. deadline is for today, June 11, not June 12.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.