Judge, 90: “I Was Not Asleep”

University of Hartford Photo

In a rare self-defense from the bench, a nonagenarian federal judge said she was merely “bored,” not catching a few winks, while presiding over a New Haven trial involving the largest federal drug sweep in state history.

Senior Judge Ellen Bree Burns (pictured) made that statement before the fourth day of proceedings inside U.S. District Court on Church Street in the federal drug trial of Robert Santos, Philip Bryant, and Richard Anderson.  The three men were taken into custody in 2012, when federal agents ended an 18-month wiretap investigation by arresting over 100 people. They’re accused of conspiracy as part of a huge drug-dealing ring. Theirs is the third case to come out of the federal drug sweep, dubbed “Operation Bloodline.”

As many as two dozen family members and supporters have shown up each day to watch the court proceedings. A number of them have complained that Judge Burns, who is 90, appeared at times to be falling asleep. Prosecutors have played extensive audio recordings of wiretapped telephone conversations between defendants and a star cooperating witness nicknamed “Nature.”

“We’ve watched her,” said a relative of one defendant, who asked not to be named. “We wrote down the times that she fell asleep.”

On Friday, Judge Burns addressed the rumors from the bench. She said she wasn’t sleeping, just taking notes.

“Before we begin this morning, there was some concern expressed the other day about the fact that apparently some defendants and some of their relatives believed I was falling asleep on the bench,” she remarked.

“For your information, in case you’re not familiar with my process, I take copious notes during the testimony of each witness, and I would like to place into the record my personal notes of what happened that afternoon to reflect that I was not asleep; indeed, I was listening very carefully to what was going on and making notes of them.”

Burns then made a confession: She was sometimes bored by the trial, and also “intrigued”:

“I will confess that I was somewhat bored during the course of the playing of the audio tapes, and intrigued, by the way. But I want to put this in the record as a Court exhibit to indicate what I was doing that afternoon. It was not sleeping. I was not sleeping.”

Attorneys for all three defendants declined to comment on Burns’ comments.

Judge Burns is the oldest federal judge in Connecticut. She assumed “senior status” in 1992, which means she has a reduced workload. Under the federal system, judges are appointed to serve until they die, retire voluntarily, or are impeached. Another sitting federal judge in Connecticut, Warren Eginton, is 89; he appeared alert and engaged Tuesday as he presided Tuesday over the sentencing of a man who conducted a $5 million Ponzi scheme involving New Haven real estate.

From the gallery seats in Burns’ second-floor courtroom, she is visible only from the shoulders up. Occasionally her chin drops to her chest as she looks down—when, according to her court remarks, she’s writing notes. During observation in this trial by this reporter, she does not appear to have fallen asleep, based on the fact that she hasn’t suddenly jerked her head as though waking up.

Through an intermediary, Judge Burns declined comment for this story. She spoke about her age in this New Haven Register interview two years ago. She told the paper she loves being a judge: “It keeps me active, which is a healthy thing for an older person.”

“Ellen Burns may be 90 years old, but she she’s got more energy than most people half her age and she is sharp as a tack,” New Haven civil rights attorney Norm Pattis remarked Wednesday.  Any lawyer who has tried a case in front of Burns knows that their case has her full attention, Pattis said. (He’s not one of the attorneys in the Bloodline trial.)

It’s not remarkable that Burns said the trial was boring her, Pattis said. “There is a sort of boring, repetitive quality to federal drug cases.”

Pattis said advanced age is not a problem for federal judges, especially for Judge Burns. “Lawyering is a profession in which experience matters. We want wise people on the bench. I sometimes think judges should be no younger than 50.” Referring to Judge Eginton, he added, “I don’t think anybody in their right mind questions his acuity.”

Past Independent stories on Operation Bloodline:
Defense: Let Jury Know Why Star Witnesses Talk
“Bloodline” Dealer Found Guilty
On The Stand, Freeman Is No “White Boy Chris”
6 Rental Cars + 1 Stash House = Big Drug Dealer?
TXT From B.O. To Big Dog: “14s 36h”
Bloodline Jurors Learn The Drug-Dealing ABCs
YouTube, Facebook Helped Bust The Bloods
Biggs’ Jailhouse Plea: Don’t Believe The Rap
Wiley Don Raps Feds From Prison
“Bloodline” Cop Wiretapped Sister’s Boyfriends
Guilty Verdict In “Bloodline” Trial
Bloodline Defense Lawyers: That’s All You’ve Got?
Drug Trade’s “Great White Hope” Grilled
“Bloodline” Trail Leads To White Boy Chris
Judge To Feds: Fix Your “2nd Class” Mess
• “Top” Blood, Rapper’s Pal, Pleads Not Guilty
Feds Indict 105 In Tre Bloods Probe
“Operation Bloodline” Nets Alleged 61 Tre Bloods

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on January 29, 2014  5:26pm

Ellen Bree Burns is an outstanding judge, both smart and compassionate.

Some day drug trials will be right up there with witch trials.

Such a waste of time, money and talent.

posted by: robn on January 29, 2014  5:46pm

Judge Burns also bears an uncanny resemblance to Judge Elizabeth Mizener from Law and Order played by actress Lynn Cohen. CLANG! (...Law and Order sound effect…)


posted by: 32knot on January 30, 2014  4:01pm

I was in that judge’s court room for a jury picking session and it seemed that the clerk was running things and the the judge seemed “bored” then too. It takes a very special person to stay sharp enough to ride herd over a trial with really sharp people at both tables. Might be time to become a Judge Emeratis (sp)and give the defendents the attention to detail their plight demands.

posted by: Beth A on January 30, 2014  8:54pm

This is agism at its finest. Judge Burns is sharper than most people I know who are half her age. She’s also smarter than 99.9 percent of the population. Perhaps if the defendants and their relatives were more concerned about their own actions they wouldn’t find themselves in federal court.