In his more than three decades on the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur has developed a reputation as a high-minded expert in the law, often peppering his rulings with somewhat obscure literary references to everything from Shakespeare to the Magna Carta.
But on Tuesday, the normally easygoing senior judge was uncharacteristically emotional, launching a scathing, seven-page opinion that blasted lawyers for NBA legend Michael Jordan who had accused him of bias and asked that he recuse himself in Jordan’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Dominick's food stores.
In agreeing to remove himself from the long-running case, Shadur, who turns 90 later this month, vehemently denied he was biased, noting ironically that he’d ruled in favor of Jordan on the merits of the lawsuit and only disagreed with the $5 million in damages he was originally planning to seek from a jury.
Shadur refused to officially recuse himself – a move that would admit potential bias -- deciding instead to invoke his senior judge privileges to step aside. In doing so, however, the judge wrote that in his 65 years practicing law he’s never had his integrity questioned so unfairly and that the “groundless and unwarranted attack” had eroded his respect for Jordan’s counsel to the point where “subliminal forces” could unwittingly affect his decision-making process if he stayed on with the case.
“That is a possibility that this court has never before encountered and it is a risk that cannot be allowed to exist even in possibility,” Shadur wrote.
The extraordinary development came a week after Jordan’s attorneys claimed in a court filing that the judge had “demeaned and disparaged” Jordan and his counsel by characterizing the former Bulls superstar as greedy and attempting to bully him into reducing his damages claim against Dominick’s. The lawyers also alleged that Shadur improperly tried to get Jordan's endorsement partners to coerce him to do so.
The filing quoted transcripts from several hearings dating to 2011 in which Shadur quoted an axiom about the stock market that ends with the phrase “hogs get slaughtered.” The judge later said he'd learned the quip from a colleague and he was not referring personally to Jordan.
Shadur’s ruling Tuesday did not reference any attorneys by name, but it was clear in several sections he was talking about Frederick Sperling, Jordan's longtime counsel who is the lead attorney of record in the case.
“When a lawyer who may be short on scruples chooses to distort the truth to his or her own ends in a court filing, the judge whom he or she has chosen to attack is essentially without an adequate remedy,” Shadur wrote. “Judges are pretty much defenseless in such situations.”
Shadur called the allegations against him “a big lie” and said he saw “no virtue” in refuting it point-by-point. The judge also said he realized that by stepping down from the case, “the unfortunate result will be to provide Jordan’s counsel with the same outcome that his forum-shopping motion for recusal had as its target.”
Sperling issued a brief statement that did not address the judge’s accusations.
“Judge Shadur has had a long and distinguished career,” Sperling said. “We respect his decision to withdraw from this case.”
Dominick’s lawyer, Steven Mandell, took the opportunity to criticize Jordan’s lawyers, saying it was “unfortunate” they resorted “to baseless attacks against Judge Shadur’s integrity solely for the purpose of advancing an inflated damage claim.”
Jordan sued Dominick's in 2010 over a one-page ad that ran in a Sports Illustrated commemorative issue celebrating his induction into the Hall of Fame. “Congratulations, Michael Jordan” the ad said in large lettering above the phrase, “You are a cut above.” Below the phrase was a $2-off coupon for a Rancher's Reserve steak from Dominick's.
A separate lawsuit against Jewel-Osco over a congratulatory ad in the same edition is pending before a different judge in federal court in Chicago.
To determine the “fair market value of Jordan's likeness,” his attorneys have sought to introduce Jordan's endorsement contracts with companies such as Nike and Gatorade that have paid in excess of $10 million each to use his likeness in commercials and other materials. Shadur has blasted the idea of comparing those deals to the Sports Illustrated ad because the commemorative issue sold 40,000 copies and had little financial benefit for the grocery chain.
“You think that jurors are brainless. You think that judges are brainless,” Shadur said at a hearing earlier this month, according to a transcript. “Not true. One size does not fit all. As in 'Animal Farm,' some animals are more equal than others.”
The judge has also called into question several times the fact that Jordan did not sue Sports Illustrated –which has put him on its cover a record 50 times since the 1980s – even though the magazine was the one that instigated the Dominick’s deal.
Last year, Jordan appeared in court for an unusual off-the-record settlement conference with Shadur after being secreted into the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse through a basement entrance to avoid media attention. In a sworn statement signed last week, Jordan said Shadur's “sole focus” at the conference “was on aggressively attempting to persuade me to substantially reduce my claim for damages.”
Forbes recently reported that Jordan's net worth exceeds $1 billion, including a majority ownership stake in the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. Jordan's attorneys have claimed the basketball great is not out for money but trying to “protect the value of the use of his identity.” Jordan intends to donate any damages in excess of his legal costs to charity, his lawyers have said.
But Shadur took a swipe at that as well, noting any charitable contribution would be tax deductible.