You know it’s a slow news day when a reporter calls for a comment about sleeping judges, as in jurists snoozing during the United States government’s presentation of evidence in a criminal case. But U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Burns asleep at the bench? I’d bet my life against the truth of that proposition.
I was in my office the other day, a place I genuinely try to avoid during the work week, as fielding phone calls is one of the most stressful things I can imagine. Call me paranoid, but it seemed as though word got out I was in: five minutes seemed to about as long a break as I’d get between calls. There were new prospective clients, clients with questions, a judge, a few friends.
My heart lightened when I learned The New Haven Independent was on one of the lines.
Paul Bass, the editor of the online paper, is one of my favorite journalists. He knows New Haven, is beholden to no one, and writes exceedingly well. His book, “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And the Redemption of a Killer (2006),” is fantastic. I keep hoping he’ll write another.
One of his reporters was on the line.
Had I heard reports that Judge Burns had fallen asleep during a trial?
No, I replied, and I wouldn’t believe them if I had.
The truth is, I love Ellen Burns. So do plenty of other trial lawyers. That’s because she let’s you try your case, and is respectful of litigants and members of the bar. I can no more imagine her falling asleep during a trial than I can imagine, uh, well, Richard Blumenthal walking away from a rolling television camera.
She was apparently presiding over yet another of what seems to be an endless number of federal drug trials. The Justice Department has outdone itself in this one. More than 100 New Haven residents were swept up in something the feds call Operation Bloodline. The case came replete with wiretaps, cooperating witnesses and the paraphernalia of the drug trade.
Trust me when I tell you that once you’ve seen half-a-dozen of federal drug cases, you’ve seen them all. Indeed, one of the reasons I withdrew from the federal Criminal Justice Act panel was to make sure I never had to field another request from the court to represent a person in one of these tragic set pieces. (The primary reason, however, is that I got sick and tired of jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get paid the modest sums offered.)
I haven’t always agreed with Burns’ rulings. I recall during one trial being so angry at her I wondered whether the time for her to retire hadn’t passed. I still bridle when I think of that ruling, so sure I am that she was wrong, dead wrong. (Can one make such a comment about a 90-year-old judge?)
Burns announced in court when word got to her that folks thought she was dozing that she was, in fact, glancing down to take notes. The Independent reported her denial, but in such a way as to suggest that, at 90, it might not have been true. I suspect the story went viral shortly thereafter.
Is this a new form of ageism? A 90-year-old is presumed incompetent, too tired, worn out, incapable of serving?
I can understand why desperate defendants and their families might raise questions about the fairness of a trial. Federal drug cases are usually cakewalks for the prosecution. I can’t recall the last time the feds lost one in Connecticut. But I somehow took the accusation against Burns personally. These people are messing with my judge, and I don’t like it.
She told folks in the trial that reports of her dozing were inaccurate. She might have been bored by the playing of the wiretap evidence, but she was not asleep. That’s right! Bored. Thank you, judge.
I am with her all the way. Another drug trial? I’ll bet those arrested were replaced by new drug salespeople before a week had passed. I frankly don’t know how she stays awake.•
Norm Pattis is a criminal defense attorney and civil rights lawyer in Bethany. Most days he blogs at www.pattisblog.com.