By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A veteran federal judge in Chicago has withdrawn from NBA legend Michael Jordan's lawsuit against a local supermarket chain over the use of his name and image in a magazine ad, but not without levying harsh criticism at the basketball Hall of Famer's lawyers for seeking his recusal.
U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur, who turns 90 next week, objected to what he called the lawyers' "groundless and unwarranted personal attack" on his integrity after the judge allegedly tried to pressure the former Chicago Bulls star to lower his damages claim.
The 34-year veteran of the federal bench nonetheless said he would withdraw to avoid any potential for bias.
Jordan had in 2010 sued Dominick's Finer Foods, a unit of Safeway Inc, over an ad in a Sports Illustrated issue that celebrated his Hall of Fame induction the prior year.
The ad showed Jordan in silhouette and used the phrase "You are a cut above," just above a $2-off coupon for steak.
Jordan, now majority owner of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, is seeking up to $2.5 million of damages, though a witness for him said the ad's commercial value could have been $10 million, court records show. Lawyers for Jordan have said he will donate damages in excess of his legal bills to charity.
In seeking Shadur's recusal, Jordan's lawyer Frederick Sperling said last week the judge had in court described Jordan as "greedy," likening him to a "hog" who would "get slaughtered" and trying to intimidate him into lowering his damages claim.
Granting the motion, Shadur said the recusal request was replete with "skewed mischaracterizations."
The judge also said he felt "particularly personal" regret in deciding to withdraw, pointing to his 65-year legal career and long stint on the bench.
But he also said he found it "most regrettable" that he found a need to levy "such criticism of a lawyer for whom this court had previously held some degree of regard." Shadur did not in his decision identify any of Jordan's lawyers by name.
"This most recent development in the litigation has unfortunately eroded that regard and any respect that this Court had held for Jordan's counsel to the point where this Court is concerned lest there be a danger that subliminal forces could perhaps unwittingly affect the decisional process in this case," Shadur wrote. "It is a risk that cannot be allowed to exist even in possibility."
Sperling said in a phone interview: "Judge Shadur has had a long and distinguished career. We respect his decision to withdraw from this case."
Steven Mandell, a lawyer for Dominick's, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case will be assigned to another judge. Jordan is also pursuing a lawsuit against the Jewel-Osco supermarket chain before a different Chicago judge over another congratulatory ad.
The case is Jordan et al v. Dominick's Finer Foods LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, No. 10-00407.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Eric Beech)