NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Bernard Madoff scandal is one of the biggest cases ever to land in Judge Denny Chin’s courtroom. But the 15-year veteran of the federal bench is no stranger to high-profile legal disputes.
Chin, born in Hong Kong and the first Asian-American federal judge outside of California and Hawaii, was assigned to oversee the Madoff criminal case last week after the accused swindler signaled he planned to plead guilty.
Madoff appeared for the first time before the judge Tuesday on a potential conflict involving his lawyer and is expected to plead guilty on Thursday before a crowd of his angry former investors -- three months after he was charged with running a $50 billion investment ponzi scheme.
Madoff is expected to admit his guilt to 11 criminal charges that could put him in jail for the rest of his life.
Judge Chin is known in the legal community as even-tempered, fair, witty and unafraid to make tough decisions. He was just 39 when tapped by former President Bill Clinton in 1994 for a judgeship in Manhattan federal court -- one of the busiest U.S. courthouses with cases ranging from terrorism trials to celebrity disputes to white-collar crime.
His cases have included a controversial 2006 ruling that nixed a state law toughening New York’s ability to track sexual offenders.
Two years ago, he took the rare step of throwing out a jury’s conviction of a former New York Stock Exchange floor trader accused of improperly trading ahead of customer orders, saying that prosecutors did not prove their fraud accusations.
“His soft-spoken, calm demeanor shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Randy Mastro, a partner at law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York and former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani. Mastro worked with Chin at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan in the 1980s.
“He will do the right thing. He is not a person who shies away from deciding a tough case or controversy.”
Last month, Judge Chin sentenced the man who led a prostitution ring whose clients included former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to 30 months in prison. Other cases that he presided over include a 2002 lawsuit against Penthouse magazine for running pictures of a topless sunbather misidentified as tennis star Anna Kournikova. The case later settled out of court.
Madoff, a veteran money manager, has become one of the most reviled people in the United States for allegedly stealing from clients including the elderly and charities.
His prior court appearances have attracted throngs of reporters and photographers. The former Nasdaq chairman, under house arrest in his penthouse apartment and around-the-clock security, has arrived at court in a bulletproof vest.
Madoff will get a fair hearing in Chin’s courtroom, the judge’s former colleagues say.
“I think he will be measured, and I think he’ll listen and I think he’ll do what he thinks is right,” said Anne Vladeck, a partner at law firm Vladeck Waldman Elias & Engelhard, where Chin worked before taking the bench.
He “is fair and equal to whomever is before him, whether it is somebody who is blue collar, an immigrant or a CEO,” Vladeck said.
The Madoff case is the latest big financial fraud case in a courthouse where well-known defendants like Martha Stewart, Bernard Ebbers and Michael Milken were prosecuted.
If Madoff pleads guilty, there would be no trial. Instead, the judge would decide on punishment and other matters such as potential victims’ restitution in the coming weeks or months.
While federal judges have leeway over sentencing, anything other than life in prison for the 70-year-old Madoff would be surprising given the size of the alleged fraud, experts say.
“Regardless of what judge he did draw, his fate is pretty much sealed,” said Evan Stewart, a partner at law firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in New York.
Chin came to the United States with his parents at the age of two. His mother worked as a seamstress in the garment factories of New York’s Chinatown, a stone’s throw from the federal courthouse where he now works, while his father was a cook in Chinese restaurants.
Chin was a star student at the city’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School before attending Princeton University and then Fordham Law School.
Chin clerked for a federal judge and then spent two years at law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. In 1982, he became a lawyer in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, before returning to private practice in 1986.
He is married to a lawyer and has been active in the Asian-American Bar Association of New York and organizations including Hartley House, a community group in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan where he grew up.
Mastro, Chin’s former colleague at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the judge is one of the most honorable people he has worked with and that he gives everyone a fair hearing.
A few years ago, Mastro argued a case before the judge. “I got a warm reception and a full opportunity to make my case, and then he denied my motion,” Mastro said. “No matter how long you’ve known him, you’re going to get a fair shake in his courtroom and he’s going to decide the case on the merits.”
Reporting by Martha Graybow; Editing by Bernard Orr