Jump to content

James Zagel

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James Zagel
Zagel in 1991
Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
October 21, 2016 – July 15, 2023
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
April 22, 1987 – October 21, 2016
Appointed byRonald Reagan
Preceded byFrank James McGarr
Succeeded bySteven C. Seeger
Judge of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
In office
May 18, 2008 – May 18, 2015
Appointed byJohn Roberts
Preceded byJames Robertson
Succeeded byThomas B. Russell
Personal details
James Block Zagel

(1941-03-04)March 4, 1941
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedJuly 15, 2023(2023-07-15) (aged 82)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
  • (div. 1975)
  • Margaret Maxwell
    (m. 1979)

James Block Zagel (March 4, 1941 – July 15, 2023) was an American judge and attorney. After a stint as a prosecutor, he became a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 1987, assuming senior status in 2016.[1] He presided over numerous high-profile trials, including those of several members of the Chicago Outfit and the corruption trial of former Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich. Zagel also sat on the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2008 to 2015.

Early life and education


Zagel was born to Jewish parents in Chicago on March 4, 1941.[2] He was the son of Samuel S. Zagel, a native of Warsaw, Poland who had immigrated to Chicago in 1915, and Ethel Samuels Zagel.[2] Zagel earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1962 and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in the same year. He then earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1965.[3]

Professional career


Zagel began his career as an assistant state's attorney in Cook County, Illinois, from 1965 until 1969, where he helped compile the case against mass murderer Richard Speck.[2] He then served as an assistant attorney general for the State of Illinois from 1969 until 1977. Concurrent to the job as assistant attorney general, Zagel ran the Criminal Justice Division in the attorney general's office from 1970 until 1977, and he also served as chief prosecuting attorney for the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board from 1973 until 1975.[3] In 1977, Zagel became executive director of the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, a post he held until 1979. From 1979 until 1980, Zagel was the director of the Illinois Department of Revenue.[4] From 1980 until joining the federal bench in 1987, Zagel was the director of the Illinois State Police.[3]

Federal judicial service


Zagel was a finalist for a federal judgeship in 1985, but was not chosen.[5] On February 2, 1987, President Reagan nominated Zagel to be a judge on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The United States Senate confirmed Zagel on April 21, 1987, and he received his commission on April 22, 1987.[3] He took senior status on October 21, 2016. From 2008 to 2015, Zagel served a seven-year term on the FISA Court.[1][6]

Trial history


Zagel presided over many notable and high-profile trials, including the Jesse Webster case and the "Family Secrets" trial that ended in 2007, where he convicted numerous mobsters, such as Joseph Lombardo and Frank Calabrese Sr.[2][7] In April 2009, it was announced that Zagel would preside over the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his brother, Robert Blagojevich.[4] The judge refused to let Blagojevich go to Costa Rica to participate in the show, I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, saying Blagojevich needed to prepare a good defense for his upcoming trial and focus on the reality of the current situation.[8] The former governor's wife Patti Blagojevich went instead.[8] In August 2010, jury deliberations began in the Blagojevich trial. Rod Blagojevich was convicted on one charge, of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with a hung jury on 22 other charges. He was retried in June 2011, with Zagel presiding, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on 17 of the remaining counts, including those pertaining to the Obama Senate seat. On December 7, 2011, Zagel sentenced Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in federal prison, though the sentence was commuted by President Donald Trump in 2020.[2]

Other interests


Zagel was described as a "Renaissance man" with a wide variety of interests outside of the courtroom; fellow judge Manish S. Shah told The New York Times that Zagel "could quote Ludwig Wittgenstein and Groucho Marx with an easy charm".[2][9] He acted in two films, playing a Chicago judge in the 1989 film Music Box, and a physician whose parent is murdered in the 1991 film Homicide.[2][9] He was credited under the name of J. S. Block.[9] In 2002, he published a novel titled Money to Burn,[10] a fictional thriller about a plot to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.

Personal life and death


Zagel and his first wife, Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Pam Zekman, divorced in 1975.[4][11] He then was married to lawyer Margaret Maxwell Zagel from around 1979 until his death.[2]

Zagel died from heart failure at his home in Chicago on July 15, 2023, at the age of 82.[2][7][12]


  1. ^ a b John Shiffman, Kristina Cooke (June 21, 2013). "The judges who preside over America's secret court". Reuters. Archived from the original on June 23, 2013. Retrieved July 1, 2013. Twelve of the 14 judges who have served this year on the most secret court in America are Republicans and half are former prosecutors.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Roberts, Sam (July 21, 2023). "James B. Zagel, U.S. Judge Who Jailed Illinois Governor, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d James Block Zagel at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  4. ^ a b c Jeff Coen; Bob Secter (May 10, 2010). "Blagojevich trial judge Zagel regarded as smart, unflappable". Clout Street. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
  5. ^ Egler, Daniel (April 23, 1985). "2 nominees named for U.S. bench". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 13, 2013.
  6. ^ "The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court: 2013 Membership". Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved June 9, 2013.
  7. ^ a b Struett, David. "Judge James Zagel, who sent Rod Blagojevich to prison, is dead at 82". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved July 22, 2023.
  8. ^ a b Marcia Froelke Coburn (March 15, 2010). "'The Celebrity Apprentice,' Episode One: Blago Squeaks Through—Barely". ChicagoMagazine.com. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 20, 2013. Blago tried to fly under the radar, much like his wife Patti did when she appeared on NBC's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, an adventure-reality show shot in Costa Rica. (Blago had wanted to do that show, but a judge wouldn't let him leave the country.)
  9. ^ a b c Keeshan, Charles (July 16, 2023). "'Renaissance man' judge who presided over Blagojevich, 'Family Secrets' trials dies at 82". Daily Herald. Arlington Heights, Illinois. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  10. ^ Zagel, James (2002). Money to burn (book) (First ed.). New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0399148914. Retrieved August 14, 2013.
  11. ^ Witt, Linda (June 23, 1985). "Dig she must - Imagine Peggy Fleming crossed with Woodward and Bernstein and you've got Pam Zekman, the best investigative reporter on television". Chicago Tribune. p. 10. Retrieved August 20, 2013. she met her first husband, James B. Zagel, then a young prosecutor in the state`s attorney`s office. They were divorced in 1975.
  12. ^ Meisner, Jason (July 16, 2023). "Judge James Zagel, who presided over major Chicago cases, dies". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 22, 2023.


Legal offices
Preceded by Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Succeeded by
Preceded by Judge of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
Succeeded by