Retiring Judge Shares Stories From Behind the Bench

Judge James Holderman was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in September of 1984

In his more than three decades on the bench, Federal Judge James Holderman saw some of society’s worst. He sat in judgment of mobsters and crooked politicians. Even signed the wiretap order on a sitting Illinois governor.

But the former Chief Judge of the Illinois Northern District, who will retire next month, says it was the case of a disabled child which sticks in his mind the most. The four year old’s parents brought suit in Holderman’s court, seeking their son’s admittance to his local school in Chicago’s western suburbs.

"The cases that stick in mind are the ones that affected people the most," Holderman said in an interview in his Dirksen Building courtroom. "I applied the law and ordered the school to provide him the services that he needed so that he could attend school."

"His parents were so devoted to him to make sure that he could lead the best life that he possibly could," Holderman recalled. "And all I did was apply the law."

To be certain, the retiring jurist had more than his share of celebrated cases. Early on, he presided over three of the trials of corrupt judges from Operation Greylord.

"I always asked myself, what was it that caused this person to turn from whatever they were desirous of doing when they became a judge, and become corrupt," he said. "I’m assuming no one takes the bench with the idea they’re going to engage in corruption."

Holderman also oversaw the trials of mobsters Frank Calabrese Sr. and Albert "Caesar" Tocco. The latter, he recalled, was so vicious, evidence was presented that he plotted the murder of his own wife for cooperating with federal prosecutors.

"I sentenced him to 200 years," Holderman said. "And I told him, 'You, by your conduct, have forfeited your right to live in a free society.'"

More recently, Holderman played a role in the case against former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. While he didn’t sit as trial judge in that case, as Chief Judge, he did sign the order allowing the wiretapping of the governor’s phones.

"They presented that, with the allegation that the then sitting governor was attempting to sell the senate seat of President Obama," he recalled. "And they established through the presentation of evidence that that was taking place over the phone. Yes, I allowed that surveillance to be obtained."

It was not, he conceded, just another case.

"It was not just another case, but it was a determination that I made, just like any other case," he said.

But, did he go home that evening saying, "Wow, they’re after the governor?"

"Well, unfortunately, it’s not the first governor who’s under investigation in the state of Illinois," he recalled.

After serving as an assistant United States Attorney, Holderman was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in September of 1984. He still remembers every second of that phone call.

"He called me the Saturday of Labor Day weekend," he remembered. "I was told that sometime over the weekend I’d get a call, and in fact, the president called and I wasn’t home. I was coaching my son’s youth soccer league."

Needless to say, eventually he was found and the call went through.

"He said, 'Mr. Holderman? Ron Reagan.’ He didn’t say, 'President Reagan,' he said 'Ron Reagan!'" Holderman recalled, adding that the president declared, "I have some papers here that I would like to sign but before I do I'd like to ask your permission. I’d like to appoint you a United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois."

"I said, 'I’d be honored and privileged!'"

Among his judicial duties, Holderman oversaw a pilot program studying the feasibility of cameras in federal courts. He said he supports that concept.

"I believe that having cameras in the courtroom to show the public and display to the public what takes place in the courtrooms would enhance the public trust," he said. "The cameras really have no effect on the proceedings. People forget they’re even there."

Holderman became Chief Judge in 2006, and after serving in that capacity for seven years took senior status on the bench in 2013. All federal judicial appointments are for life, but he says he’s retiring now to take on, as he put it, "new horizons."

"There are other things in life, and I’m looking forward to them," he said. 

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