New Hispanic chief judge: Need more jury diversity

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:55 p.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – The first Hispanic to lead the busy federal court district that includes McHenry County and a huge swath of northern Illinois said Tuesday that one of his priorities will be helping ensure that juries better reflect the region's ethnic and racial diversity.

Ruben Castillo made the comments to The Associated Press in an interview shortly before he was sworn in Tuesday as chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois. He alluded to complaints for years from defense attorneys that juries often don't reflect the multicultural makeup of the district, which spans from Chicago to Rockford and west to the Iowa border.

"That's been a sore point for all of us, including the court, as we work and try to fix that," he said.

Castillo, 58 and a long-serving U.S. district court judge, was born in Chicago to immigrant parents – his father from Mexico and his mother from Puerto Rico. He grew up on Chicago's ethnically mixed west side, and he has maintained close links to the Latino community.

"I understand it's historic," he said about his rise to the post, adding that he hopes it inspires young Hispanics. "The real significance will come on the streets of Chicago if some kids growing up the way I grew up think to themselves, 'Anything is possible.' If that one kid turns into 100 or 1,000 – that's even better."

It's not the only notable first in Castillo's judicial career.

He was also the first Hispanic to become a U.S. district judge in northern Illinois after being nominated by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994. Before, he worked as a defense lawyer and federal prosecutor in Chicago.

Castillo takes over as chief judge from James Holderman, whose term just ended. U.S. district judges become chief judges according to a statutory formula: It goes to the judge in a district who has the most seniority and is still under the age of 65.

Diversity, Castillo said, would be a theme of his seven-year term.

"I'm not only going to have diversity as a goal, but I am going to ask this court to embrace diversity," he said.

He did not offer detailed fixes to the problem of a lack of diversity on juries but said part of the solution would be for court officials, including himself personally, to reach out to minority communities and help them better understand the jury system.

As chief judge, Castillo becomes the top administrator of the court district, which is the third busiest in the nation. There are 10 million people living within its boundaries, and its around 30 federal judges handle 1,000 criminal cases and 12,000 civil cases a year.

In remarks after taking his oath in a crowded ceremonial courtroom Tuesday, Castillo also broached the issue of congressional budget constraints, criticizing lawmakers for creating "a crisis" and "a financial storm" for U.S. court districts across the country.

"I am being told as chief judge: Which limb do you want amputated?" said Castillo, flanked by dozens of judicial colleagues in their black robes.

Currently, the budget for the northern Illinois district is frozen at $14 million.

"We are operating as efficiently as we can," Castillo said. "And yet all I get are missives from Washington, D.C., that financial cuts are coming our way."

Castillo's caseload will be reduced, but he'll continue to oversee cases. That includes the drug-trafficking trial of Vicente Zambada, a lieutenant in Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, which is expected to happen next year.

Castillo is known as a bright legal mind. But he is also well known at the courthouse as a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan, which is demonstrated at his office by hockey pucks and hats emblazoned with the team's logo.

In his ceremonial nomination of his father for chief judge on Tuesday, Castillo's son, Roberto Castillo, said he wanted to present "evidence" for why his father qualified for the job.

"Basically, it boils down to one thing," he said. "The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup this year."

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Follow Michael Tarm at https://twitter.com/mtarm

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