A well-known criminal defense attorney was disqualified Monday from representing one of Mexico's earliest drug kingpins after prosecutors questioned whether he was linked to his client's cartel.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said allowing lawyer Jan Ronis to argue the case could become a sideshow and cause substantial delays.
His ruling cast aside an argument by Ronis that the ban would deny defendant Benjamin Arellano Felix his right to choose a lawyer.
Arellano Felix was extradited from Mexico last month to face drug, money-laundering and racketeering charges, ending a quest by U.S. authorities that began shortly after he was indicted in 2003.
He headed a once-mighty cartel based in Tijuana, Mexico, and is one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.
The dispute about legal representation centered on Ronis' representation of a potential witness who pleaded guilty to a role in smuggling 528 pounds of cocaine from Mexico in 1995.
Prosecutors said a senior cartel lieutenant who was arrested in 1997 would testify that he paid for the witness' legal representation.
The witness, who was not named, would testify that neither he nor his family hired Ronis, and that Ronis once told him that "everything had been taken care of with respect to his payment," prosecutors said.
James Melendres, an assistant U.S. attorney, said at the hearing Monday that Ronis himself was implicated in the racketeering conspiracy, but he did not specify how. Prosecutors said they might call Ronis to testify.
Ronis, who did not state his case at the hearing, argued in court papers that prosecutors' attempt to oust him was an effort to "stack the deck" against Arellano Felix, whose family approached the attorney about a year ago to represent him.
"Given the nature of the case, there are very few qualified attorneys who have the legal skill, knowledge and ability to represent Mr. Arellano Felix," Ronis argued in a filing.
Ronis, 65, told reporters he doubted the government intended to ask him to testify. He also said he would be shocked if his former client, who long ago completed his sentence, would testify.
Eugene Iredale, a San Diego defense attorney who represented a senior cartel lieutenant in the 2003 indictment, suggested prosecutors may have wanted to have a less skillful adversary in the case.
"A more decent and ethical person you could not meet," Iredale said of Ronis.
The 1995 cocaine seizure involving Ronis' former client is among a myriad of alleged crimes listed in the indictment that date back to the mid-1980s, when the Arellano Felix cartel rose to power.
The judge expressed concern that Ronis might feel compelled to defend his own reputation at trial.
"I'd want to defend my client but I'd also want to defend my reputation," said Burns, a former federal prosecutor.
Burns kept a court-appointed defense attorney, Douglas C. Brown, on the case. Prosecutors said they planned to turn over about 160,000 pages of evidence on Monday to prepare for trial.
The hearing was held under tight security at San Diego's downtown courthouse. The Marshals Service wanted to keep Arellano Felix in handcuffs in the courtroom but Burns ordered the cuffs to be taken off.