When Ruben Castillo was sworn in as the first Hispanic federal judge in
Chicago while in his late 30s, a court clerk said his youth likely meant he
would someday take the reins as the district's chief jurist.
The prediction became reality last week as Castillo, now 58, succeeded James Holderman as chief judge for the Northern District of Illinois, the first Hispanic to hold the post.
"The last two weeks moving into this chief judge's chambers has been a little bit surreal for me," said Castillo, sitting in his 25th-floor office at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse behind a desk filled with family photos and souvenirs from his beloved Blackhawks.
At his swearing-in on Tuesday, Castillo broke into a broad smile as his father, Ruben Sr., 88, slipped the chief judge's robe over his shoulders as a throng of judges, lawyers and court personnel packed the building's large ceremonial courtroom.
As overseer of the third-largest federal court district in the country, the chief judge post carries important administrative duties, putting Castillo in charge of grand jury issues and requests for wiretaps and other surveillance by prosecutors. The seven-year post automatically went to Castillo as the judge with the most years on the federal bench still younger than 65.
Castillo takes over the court amid concerns of cutbacks because of sequestration and other belt-tightening. The federal court in northern Illinois has a budget of $14 million and hears more than 13,000 civil and criminal cases in a typical year.
During an interview in his new office, the judge said competing for shrinking budget dollars will be paramount on his to-do list. He plans to get the word out to the public on the court's importance and the amount of money it brings into the treasury through asset seizure, including millions tied to foreign drug cartels.
"I do not want to preside over the dismantling of this court," he said.
Over nearly two decades as a judge, Castillo has earned a reputation as an intelligent, efficient and sometimes impatient jurist who likes to move cases along -- qualities that many think will suit him well in his new administrative role.
Attorney Patrick Collins said Castillo took pride in his background as a federal prosecutor and held assistant U.S. attorneys to a high standard.
"Judge Castillo was never bashful about letting prosecutors know they were not meeting that standard," said Collins, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. "You always had to be on your toes."
At the ceremony, Castillo's son, Roberto, joked that his father could be just as exacting at home. Whenever he was in trouble, he said, his father would just look at him and calmly say, "Son, that leaves a lot to be desired."
The son of a Mexican immigrant father and Puerto Rico-born mother, Castillo grew up near Grand and Ashland avenues in the rough-and-tumble West Town neighborhood. His parents instilled in him a work ethic and emphasis on education.
His father, who had no formal education, liked to say he graduated from "the school of hard knocks," Castillo said. He worked a variety of blue-collar jobs and earned enough to send Castillo to Catholic school. His mother, Carmen, who died eight years ago, was a ball of energy and constant source of support, bringing trays of food to his room when he was deep in his studies.
When he was in 7th grade, Castillo fell in love with hockey and its emphasis on hard work and team play. He taught himself to skate at the old Rainbo Gardens ice rink on North Clark Street and often played roller hockey as ice time was scarce.
"Reflecting back on it, I realize that the sport kept me on the straight and narrow because a lot of the kids that grew up in (my) neighborhood, they ended up going to prison or they had criminal records," Castillo said. "I didn't have that because I was always playing hockey."
As a teenager at Gordon Tech High School, Castillo became fascinated with legal legends like Clarence Darrow and made up his mind he was going to law school. To the surprise of his parents, he posted a sign on his bedroom door reading, "El abogado Castillo" -- "the attorney Castillo."
Castillo buckled down at Loyola University and Northwestern University Law School, handling the workload while also juggling a full-time job as an assistant at the city's raucous night bond courts. The money helped with tuition, but sometimes he toiled until 3 a.m. at the criminal courthouse at 26th and California and in the dingy courtrooms above the old police headquarters at 11th and State.
"Those courts were totally different -- roach infested, open the windows for ventilation," Castillo said. "It was wild."
After graduating from law school in 1979, Castillo joined Jenner & Block, a major Chicago law firm, becoming its only minority lawyer. Five years later, then-U.S. Attorney Dan Webb hired Castillo as a federal prosecutor. He cut his teeth prosecuting bank fraud, arson-for-profit and drug conspiracy cases. In 1987, after Castillo won his conviction on cocaine charges, a Colombian drug kingpin plotted from jail to have him killed, resulting in around-the-clock protection for the prosecutor.
Castillo left the U.S. attorney's office in 1988, taking a pay cut to join the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund as director and legal counsel on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights and immigration. It was after Castillo joined the Kirkland & Ellis law firm as a partner in 1991 that U.S. Sen. Paul Simon recommended him for the federal bench. President Bill Clinton nominated him in 1994.
In addition to his judicial duties, Castillo spent more than a decade on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which works to fashion appropriate sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. In 2004, Castillo helped implement stiff increases for political corruption offenses. At the time, he called such crimes "internal terrorism" that threatened the very fabric of democratic society.
"He has always spoken loudly and clearly about the vice of public corruption and need to deter it," Collins said.
Castillo said he takes "a great deal of pride" in representing his Latino community on the bench, especially if it gives hope to kids growing up in the same types of neighborhoods he did. But ultimately Castillo hopes his ethnicity is just a footnote.
"I hope history will bear out that I was just a good chief judge, and not a Latino chief judge," he said.
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