Saturday, April 26, 2014

Corruption and civility; polls and the practice of law in Illinois

A number of recent polls have put Illinois in the news, and not in a good way.

Illinois fared poorly in a recent Gallup poll of state residents' trust in their own state governments. A bare 28% of Illinois survey respondents "trust their state government 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount.' In contrast, at least 75% of North Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah residents trust their state governments." The next worst state was Rhode Island; in Rhode Island, according to the Gallup poll, only 40% of residents have a great deal or fair amount of trust in their state government. (The results table is reproduced in this post on page two.)

Illinois and Rhode Island are also teamed in an even more recently released Gallup poll where state residents advise whether theirs is a good state in which to live. Only 18% of Rhode Island residents thought their state was the best, or one of the best states, in which to live. But Illinoisans can not be smug: Only 19% of our residents thought that Illinois was at least one of the best states in which to live. On the other hand, only 17% of Rhode Island residents thought their state was the worst state in which to live; one in four Illinois residents -- 25% -- thought ours is the worst. (Montana topped this poll, with 77% of Big Sky State residents thinking theirs is the best state, or at least one of the best states, in which to live. The results table from this poll is reproduced in this post on page two.)

Lest the reader think that it's just that Gallup has something against our fair state, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University recently published survey results revealing that "[o]verwhelming majorities of Illinois voters believe political corruption is the norm for both federal and state governments." The good news, sort of, is that, while 89% of Illinois residents "feel corruption is somewhat common in the state" (with 53% believing that corruption is very common) and 79% "say corruption at the federal level is at least somewhat common" (with 45% saying federal corruption is very common), a comparatively smaller group of 'only' 62% Illinois residents "believe county or city political corruption is at least somewhat common" (with 35% believing local corruption to be very common).

This merely moderately cynical view of local corruption did not apply to survey respondents from Chicago. Eighty-five percent of Chicagoans "believe county or city political corruption is at least somewhat common" -- and a staggering 55% believe local corruption to be very common. Nearly 30% (29.5%) of Chicagoans think that local corruption has an impact on our daily lives, while an equal number believe that local corruption has "a good amount" of impact on our daily activity. Another 31.5% of Chicagoans believe that local corruption has some, although not much, impact on daily life.

It is this toxic environment in which lawyers and judges function in Cook County. Read Second City Cop sometime. If you slog through the comments to almost any post you may come away thinking that most cops believe that all judges are corrupt or incompetent and that all lawyers are "bottom feeders" (especially those who pursue civil rights claims against police officers). But, then, you won't have to go far on the Internet to find sites where cops are dismissed as incorrigible liars or jack-booted thugs.

It is easy to affect an attitude of brittle, knowing cynicism in this climate, to let on that we know the game is rigged, the players juiced, the outcomes preordained. Indeed, to assert otherwise, to state that things are generally on the up-and-up, that most lawyers zealously represent their clients within the constraints of legal ethics, that judges typically try diligently to ascertain and apply the law, that witnesses (even police officers!) generally take their oaths seriously, puts one at risk of being branded a hopelessly Panglossian naif. Or perhaps a Machine Mouthpiece or Useful Idiot.

It is a dangerous balancing act: As Chicago lawyers we can not uncritically accept the status quo -- there is all too much truth in the public's perception of pervasive public corruption -- but neither can we contribute unfairly to that perception.

As Law Day approaches this week, therefore, lawyers should keep in mind Justice Michael Hyman's statements from his concurring opinion in Talamine v. Apartment Finders, Inc., 2013 IL App (1st) 121201, ¶17-18, "Every ad hominem smear, insult, and innuendo, every speculative accusation, every potshot leveled at members of the judiciary has the capacity of weakening confidence in the judiciary as a whole, confidence which is essential to the vitality of our legal system. * * * [E]very personal attack on the impartiality and integrity of judges diminishes the client's (and the public's) already limited trust in the fairness of the legal system. Until lawyers restrain their bashing of judges, the public's confidence in the judicial process will remain fragile."

Justice Hyman is right, of course. But public confidence will not be restored simply because we lawyers refrain from personal criticisms of judges. Nor is it enough to be 'civil' to one another, as the Supreme Court (rightly) encourages us.

Illinois (and particularly Cook County) lawyers have to deal with -- and work to reverse -- the public's negative perceptions. We can't do that wearing blinders or rose-colored glasses; we have to begin by being proudly beyond reproach ourselves and intolerant of sloth and corruption in the system we serve. We have to become reformers ourselves; we have to become goo-goos. We have to help fix our broken system, changing perceptions by changing reality. We just have to factually illuminate how things work, and how things are supposed to work, to our clients, to our friends, to our neighbors; that alone will bring positive change. As Justice Louis Brandeis said a century ago, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

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