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Blagojevich Judge: Actor, Novelist, "No-Nonsense" Arbitrator

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CHICAGO — Judge James B. Zagel has meted out justice on the silver screen and masterminded a bank robbery in the pages of a novel.

But the veteran federal court judge who will preside over former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial leaves any theatrics behind when he dons his black robe and takes the bench.

Lawyers whose antics go over the top are swiftly silenced in Zagel's courtroom – not with a tyrannical thwack of the gavel but with a deft, sly, sarcastic turn of phrase. Those who know Zagel say that approach will serve him well as he presides over Blagojevich's trial – one of the biggest cases of his 22-year career.

"Nothing gets out of control in Judge Zagel's court," says Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor who recalls getting this warning when he was too loudly repetitive during a cross examination, at least in Zagel's view: "First, turn it down about two levels. Second, the lily has been gilded."

Blagojevich's trial, set for next June, is Zagel's second headline-grabbing case in two years. In 2007, he presided over the three-month Operation Family Secrets murder conspiracy trial, Chicago's biggest organized crime case in decades. The judge sent three reputed mob bosses to prison for life.

Blagojevich is charged with scheming to exchange President Obama's U.S. Senate seat for money or a high-paying job and plotting to use the political muscle of the governor's office to squeeze possible donors for campaign cash.

Prosecutors employed a subtle maneuver to make sure that Zagel – a former prosecutor and police official – got the Blagojevich case. They added the former governor to an existing government corruption case already before Zagel.

Zagel, who declined to be interviewed, has already shown his firm hand in the case.

Blagojevich's bond bars him from leaving the United States, and Zagel refused to make an exception so the former governor could go into the Costa Rican jungle to appear on the reality TV show, "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!"

Blagojevich sent his wife, Patti, to appear in his place.

Zagel said the ousted governor should stick around Chicago and help his attorneys sort through three million documents and hours of wiretap tapes the FBI made in gathering evidence before Blagojevich's Dec. 9 arrest.

"I don't think this defendant fully understands and I don't think he could understand ... the position he finds himself in," Zagel said.

An evaluation of Zagel by the independent Chicago Council of Lawyers says he has "an excellent reputation for competence, integrity and judicial demeanor."

"Many lawyers express the opinion that he conducts himself like a model judge," it says. The worst criticism: He's sometimes late for court.

The 68-year-old judge is a Chicago native who graduated from the University of Chicago and got his law degree from Harvard. He became a prosecutor in the Cook County state's attorney's office and later chief of the criminal division of the Illinois attorney general's office.

In that post, he appointed a budding young lawyer, Jayne Carr, as his top aide. She later became Jayne Carr Thompson, wife of former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson.

Gov. Thompson picked Zagel to head the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement in his administration and eventually recommended him to President Ronald Reagan for a judgeship. He was appointed to the District Court bench in 1987.

For all his sobriety in court, Zagel has lost none of his flair for the dramatic once he doffs his black robe and is among friends.

Zagel played a judge in the 1989 movie "Music Box" that starred actress Jessica Lange. He also wrote a crime novel, "Money to Burn," about a respected judge who turns crook and masterminds the robbery of millions of dollars from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Jim Thompson says the judge is working on another book.

Two members of the Quadrangle Club, centered on the University of Chicago and surrounding community, also recall the group's annual skit a few years ago in which the university was lampooned as if it were part of organized crime.

Zagel, clad in his robe, played the part of a judge. In real life, judges are sometimes said to "quash" an indictment – throw it out. In the skit, the script called for Zagel to place an indictment on a table and "squash the indictment" by crushing it with a large, yellow, parboiled squash.

The first night it worked perfectly. The second night Zagel pressed the squash down so hard that the table broke and vegetable parts went flying.