Reporter subpoenaed in judge substitution hearing

By Ann Knef | Mar 27, 2006

Lawyers from the Lakin Law Firm subpoenaed a Belleville News-Democrat reporter on short notice Monday to testify at a hearing on the alleged bias of Madison County Circuit Judge Don Weber.

Roy Dripps

Lawyers from the Lakin Law Firm subpoenaed a Belleville News-Democrat reporter on short notice Monday to testify at a hearing on the alleged bias of Madison County Circuit Judge Don Weber.

When Brian Brueggemann refused to address the court without representation at a hearing on whether Weber should be substituted from 14 Lakin class action lawsuits, Lakin attorney Roy Dripps scoffed.

Dripps said that Brueggemann "didn't need" a lawyer present to tell the court about a story he authored.

Brueggemann reported March 25 that a defendant in one of the many cases removed from Weber is asking an appeals court to determine if a plaintiff's attorney was "judge shopping" when he filed for substitution.

The Record has been following Weber's rugged treatment since he was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court five months ago. He has been substituted from at least 78 cases on plaintiff's motions.

On March 8, Weber signed a substitution order on a Cassens Corp. case. Associate Judge Barbara Crowder entered an emergency order before the file reached Weber--who was assigned to the case by Ferguson.

Weber granted substitution after Lakin attorney Charles Armbruster told him he had to grant it. At a March 7 hearing, Armbruster told Weber he lacked discretion even to hold a hearing.

Plaintiff attorney Thomas Maag, who used to work for the Lakin firm but switched to Wendler and Ezra of Collinsville, asked Crowder to sign the emergency order.

Gordon Broom, representing defendants Cassens Corporation and Cassens & Sons, argued that plaintiffs waived the right to substitution through misconduct.

Broom told Weber he should protect the random and impartial system of appointing judges. He said the conduct of plaintiff counsel would wreck the system.

In the Belleville News-Democrat article, Brueggemann quoted Broom as stating that Maag falsely told Crowder that Cassens agreed to the order.

"He's not outing a source," Dripps said to presiding Chief Judge Ed Ferguson. Dripps said he wanted to know what defense attorney Broom told Brueggeman regarding the Cassens case.

Attorney Gary Peel, who was recently fired by the Lakin firm, originally filed the 14 substitution motions claiming that Weber held a bias toward the firm because Lakin represented a client who sued Weber in 1992.

Peel was recently indicted on bankruptcy fraud, pornography and obstruction of justice charges.

Dripps suggested that Broom and Weber engaged in ex parte communication because there was no record of the appeals question in the file.

Defense attorney Joe Whyte of Heyl Royster in Edwardsville said that any testimony Brueggeman could provide would be hearsay. He also said the article was not given along with other documents as requested in discovery.

"Judge, I am not going to testify," Brueggemann told Ferguson. "I want to talk to my lawyer."

Ferguson had assigned the motions for substitution to newly appointed Circuit Judge Lola Maddox, but he cancelled her assignment.

Maddox and Weber attended the heated hearing in Weber's crowded third floor courtroom.

Ferguson assigns cases and normally does not hear cases. But for this critical hearing, he descended from the courthouse attic to shore up the integrity of his court.

Ferguson said he would issue his ruling on Wednesday.

Under Illinois law Ferguson had to appoint a separate judge to decide Weber's fitness to hear the case. Ferguson assigned Peel's motion to Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron.

Weber swore in a Feb. 8 affidavit that he paid no claim for damages in the case and that he had forgotten about it until the Lakin firm brought it up.

At a Feb. 10 hearing Byron refused to hear the motion because the defendant, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, had removed him from the case by substitution without cause.

Byron sent the motion back to Ferguson, who on March 1 assigned it to newly appointed Circuit Judge Lola Maddox.

Ferguson then changed his mind. A March 8 docket entry read, "As per Judge Ferguson this case should not be assigned to Judge Maddox."

Steve Gonzalez and Steve Korris contributed to this article.

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Belleville Area Special Services Heyl Royster Illinois Supreme Court

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