The judge who is expected to decide Thursday (July 26) whether or not to delay the sale of the Mercury News and other Bay Area newspapers is the same judge who ordered an investigation into the source of grand jury transcripts obtained by the Chronicle in the BALCO case.

Judge Susan Illston (pictured) is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on Clint Reilly’s request for a temporary restraining order to postpone the $1 billion sale of the Merc, Contra Costa Times, Monterey Herald, St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press and other former newspapers to MediaNews Group. Hearst Corp., owner of the Chronicle, is giving MediaNews $263 million to help complete the purchase.

Reilly contends the deal will end competition among newspapers in the Bay Area and result in higher ad rates, less newsroom competition and the loss of newspaper jobs.

Illston, 58, was appointed to the federal bench in 1995 by President Clinton on the recommendation of Sen. Barbara Boxer. She is a graduate of Duke University and Stanford Law School.

For more than two decades she was a partner in a Burlingame law firm headed by Joe Cotchett, a high-powered Democratic fundraiser and trial lawyer. Illston represented elderly bondholders of the failed Lincoln Savings & Loan Association who sued Charles Keating. She also defended a number of white-collar crime cases and has represented the NFL in several cases, including the successful defense of a suit by a fired referee.

Illston made headlines in October when she expressed frustration that the law would not allow her to give longer prison sentences to BALCO lab owner Victor Conte, who got four months in prison, and Barry Bonds’ trainer Greg Anderson, who got three months in prison. She bluntly told the defendants, “They (pro athletes) were cheating and you helped them cheat.”

She also ordered the investigation into how the Chronicle obtained grand jury transcripts in the Bonds case. As part of that investigation, prosecutors are seeking to jail two Chronicle reporters who have refused to disclose their source of the transcripts. (The judge who will decide whether the reporters go to jail is Jeffrey White; his decision is due Aug. 4.)

Illston’s courtroom (Number 10) is located on the 19th floor of the U.S. Court House, 450 Golden Gate Ave. Tomorrow’s hearing is set for 2 p.m. Here’s a link to her calendar.

SF Press Club News

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