Monday, March 07, 2016

Channel 32 airs old charges against new judge

I was in Texas last Wednesday when the local Fox affiliate, Channel 32, ran this report concerning Judge Fredrick Bates; I therefore didn't see the story until today, although I'd heard about it (my comment moderation queue is chock-full of references to this story; I just haven't let these comments through).

Judge Bates was appointed to the Circuit Court late last year by the Illinois Supreme Court; he'd already been 'pre-slated' by the Cook County Democratic Party for the Walsh vacancy, the vacancy he is now seeking in this month's primary.

In the linked report, WFLD-TV investigative reporter Dane Placko conducts an interview with an anonymous woman who alleges that she was engaged to the future Judge Bates 28 years ago. When Bates broke off the engagement, the woman says, she refused to give the engagement ring back to him. She ran into her bedroom instead, intending to grab the telephone; Bates allegedly followed her, held her down on the bed, and literally bit the ring off her finger.

The woman and her father went to the police the next day to press charges. Felony charges were, according to the Channel 32 report, reduced to a misdemeanor by a judge who said he didn't want to ruin Bates's life. The woman also filed a civil suit, Placko's report states, recovering a judgment of $10,000 against Bates. Placko does report that Judge Bates, through a spokesperson, stated that this woman attacked him, not the other way around, adding, "These allegations are absolutely false now, as they were 28 years ago. Just two weeks before an election, we are confident that voters will see this for what it is-a politically-driven smear that is deeply hurtful to Judge Bates, as a man of the bench and a man of God."

I have no idea who did what to whom in 1988; I venture no opinion on the truth or falsity of the charges.

But I can say the story is insufficiently reported. I don't understand why it was considered worthy of airtime in such an incomplete state. What's missing, you ask? Don't we have both the charge made and the response of the person targeted by the accusation?

We do.

But we also have passing reference to two court cases, one criminal and one civil, both of which generated a file that should be warehoused. Either one of those court files might shed some light on whether or not there is any merit in the accusation. Nothing in the story, as reported, suggests that either court file was sought or examined.

Granted, it is hard enough -- at the present time -- to get current court files and, when a physical court file can be located, there are often documents obviously missing or obviously filed incorrectly. Getting either file from 1988 might have proven to be a herculean task -- but there is nothing in the story as reported to indicate that an attempt was made. Review of the court files might have provided corroboration of at least some of the particulars of the ex-fiancee's charges -- or it might have refuted them altogether. Without these court files, however, all we can say with certainty is that the Fox story is incomplete.

In addition, the story unfairly insinuates that Judge Bates did not disclose this episode from his past to the screening bar associations. The story quotes, though not verbatim, an unnamed spokesperson for the Illinois Supreme Court who says that the Court was "unaware of the assault charge and the lawsuit when Bates was appointed judge. [The Court depends] on bar association screenings, which generally require judicial candidates to disclose all convictions and lawsuits in their past."

A layperson -- you know, a voter? -- might well infer from this that Bates made no disclosure was made to the bar groups, particularly since none of the bar groups that issue written explanations of their findings (the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, and, this year, the Illinois State Bar Association) mention any such incident. (Every bar group evaluating Judge Bates rated him Qualified, Recommended or better; the CBA, CCL and ISBA all found Judge Bates 'Qualified.')

The problem with jumping to such a conclusion is that bar evaluations are highly confidential. We don't (and can't) know what Judge Bates did or did not disclose; assuming these events were disclosed, the bar groups could have conducted their own independent investigations into the prior charges and prior lawsuit. In other evaluations, the CBA, CCL and ISBA mention old lawsuits or other problems that a candidate has had; you would not have to spend a long time reading the findings published by these groups to find examples (sometimes, with regards to particular candidates, a bar group says a prior legal problem is not a bar to a positive finding, sometimes otherwise). The fact that no mention was made in any of the groups' findings, however, does not mean that Judge Bates made no disclosure, nor does it mean that the groups did or did not separately investigate, nor does it mean that the groups concluded the charges were untrue. All we can fairly say from the absence of any mention of these incidents in any of the reported evaluations is that, if there was disclosure, the bar groups did not find the incident particularly significant to their ultimate findings.

If there turns out to be more to report about this story, I will try and get a new post up or update this one. For now, however, I've turned comments off on this post.