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December 12, 2008 11:00 AM

Litigator of the Week: Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Alison Frankel, The Am Law Litigation Daily

Several years ago Patrick Fitzgerald told The American Lawyer that before he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois he had been to Chicago once, for a friend's wedding. His unfamiliarity was no accident: Senator Peter Fitzgerald recommended Pat Fitzgerald for the Chicago U.S. attorney's job precisely because Fitzgerald--then a Manhattan assistant U.S. attorney best known for terrorism prosecutions--had not even the remotest connection to the state's entrenched political establishment. Pat Fitzgerald didn't know Illinois, and Illinois didn't know Pat Fitzgerald.

That is no longer the case. With the dramatic arrest Tuesday morning of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Fitzgerald has proved, once again, his determination--even eagerness--to confront power. He's done it in Illinois, where his office has convicted not only high-ranking officials in the administration of Mayor Richard Daley, but also the former governor, George Ryan. And he's done it in Washington, where, as a Justice special prosecutor, he stopped at nothing to convict I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case.

The Chicago Tribune has called Fitzgerald "Eliot Ness with a Harvard degree." The son of a Manhattan doorman, he has long shown a near-religious dedication to the job of prosecuting federal defendants, be they terrorists who blew up American embassies in Africa, Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko, or media baron Conrad Black.

The Blagovich case, for all of the profanity-laced details of corrupt schemes outlined in the government's 78-page criminal complaint (available here via The Washington Post), will present challenges for Fitzgerald. The prosecutor said at the press conference announcing Blagojevich's arrest that "Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree." But as Scott Turow explained in a compelling op-ed in The New York Times, Fitzgerald acted hastily, arresting the governor before he had obtained an indictment from the grand jury investigating Blagojevich. As a result, Fitzgerald's office faces the prospect of an imminent preliminary hearing that will give Blagovich's defense lawyers an early opportunity to probe for weaknesses in the prosecutor's case. (Will the governor's lawyers take full advantage? Brian Baxter at The Am Law Daily has a great piece on why Winston & Strawn dropped out of Blagovich's defense.)

We had an abundance of candidates for Litigator of the Week this week. For his success at trial, we considered David Spears of Spears & Imes, who won a $141 million jury verdict against Bank of America in an asset-backed securities trial. For sheer notoriety, we could have picked Marc Dreier, whose alleged fraud is turning out to be breathtaking in its audacity and heartbreaking in its effect on the 250-lawyer firm he headed.

But for his longstanding insistence that those who wield power are not above the law, Patrick Fitzgerald is this week's Litigator of the Week.

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