Patrick Fitzgerald

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald speaks in Chicago in November 2011. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / November 22, 2011)

The trial of a woman accused of slapping huge liens on then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and other high-ranking federal court officials was postponed at the last minute Monday after the judge ruled that the woman's "disturbing" legal filings proved her unfit to represent herself.

In taking the surprise action, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur raised concern that by handling her own case, Cherron Phillips ensured the proceedings "would swiftly end up with a mistrial," unduly burdening the court and prospective jurors.

"I just don't see the prospect that this trial will proceed in an orderly fashion," Shadur announced moments before jury selection was set to begin.

Shadur gave Phillips until next week to hire an attorney or provide financial information that would qualify her to have a federal defender appointed at taxpayer expense. The Chicago woman has previously rejected advice from Shadur to have an attorney appointed by the court to help her.

Shadur said Monday that he had reread some of Phillips' legal briefs over the weekend and found them "extraordinarily disturbing" and irrelevant to her case.

By filing them, the judge said, "You have defeated your own purpose" in wanting to act as her own attorney at trial.

Phillips, 43, faces charges that she targeted Fitzgerald, then-Chief Judge James Holderman and other federal judges, prosecutors and court officials by filing bogus liens on their homes in 2011 that sought tens of billions of dollars.

Prosecutors allege that Phillips was retaliating after she was barred from the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and forbidden from filing documents on behalf of her brother, Devon, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to drug conspiracy charges.

Her trial is expected to feature a star-studded cast of witnesses, with Fitzgerald, Holderman and U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow potentially taking the stand. It was the slaying of Lefkow's husband and mother in 2005 by a crazed litigant that led to a greater sensitivity for the security of federal officials in Chicago.

Phillips' court filings reflect the ideology of sovereign citizens, a rapidly expanding anti-government movement whose adherents often file nonsensical, complex legal documents and refuse to accept or follow court rules.

jmeisner@tribune.com