Friday, February 23, 2018

Judge's impromptu remarks result in controversy

Ted Slowik's story for the February 21 Daily Southtown ("Judge solicits campaign donations at council meeting in apparent conduct violation; claims it was just a joke") is online and linked here. You can read it for yourself.

Here is the actual video of Judge Travis Richardson's presentation to the Blue Island City Council meeting on February 13 (if I've done this right, the video of the roughly hour-long council meeting will start at about the 49:30 mark, seconds before Richardson was invited up to speak; if not, you know where to find it):

Richardson had coaxed a couple of laughs from the audience before turning serious and mentioning the murder of Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer, trying to tie that terrible event, which had just occurred, to the important role judges play in protecting public safety.

And he clearly wanted to lighten the mood again before he sat down. He made a little rhyme using his punch number, and he got the hoped-for laughs.

And he went for one more. Still referring to his punch number, he went for a Lotto joke, "If you play that, boxed or straight, please make a donation" at his campaign website. He got another chuckle, some applause, and sat down.

It was, in context, not a serious solicitation for funds.

It was also... not smart. And I'm straining here to be charitable.

In a telephone conversation this morning, Richardson told FWIW that he had been instructed not to comment any further about the matter. He did acknowledge, however, that he has reported the matter to his superiors.

Judge Richardson did comment to Slowik for the Southtown piece. As the linked article states, Richardson told Slowik that the comment was made in jest. And it appears clear that Slowik did not dispute this much: He described Richardson as "jovial and collegial."

However, even if we may stipulate the remark was innocently intended, it runs afoul of Supreme Court Rule 67(B)(1)(b)(2) which states, in pertinent part, "A [judicial] candidate shall not personally solicit or accept campaign contributions." There is nothing in the text of the rule, or in the comments to Canon 7, that carves out any exception for jocularity or breaking tension or anything else.

So, again, not smart.

But Slowik's article seems to attempt to link Richardson's joke about donations to the elimination of Andrea Trucco's job. If so, I submit this is a stretch.

Trucco, who had just returned from maternity leave, had served most recently as Blue Island's general counsel. She wrote a letter following the February 13 council meeting questioning the propriety of Richardson being invited to address the meeting at all -- not, at least according to the portions of her letter quoted in the article, to Richardson's ill-advised remark about donations specifically. From Slowik's article:
"From an ethical standpoint, I need to make you aware that the judge that you called to speak during public comment was openly campaigning for public office during a city council meeting," the letter said. "You, as a defense attorney who appears before this judge, invited him in your capacity as mayor to campaign during a city council meeting."
Within hours of that letter being sent, Slowik reports, Trucco's position was eliminated.

I read a recent John Kass column, but that provides me with insufficient data on which to speculate about the intricacies of Blue Island politics.

But I have been in the world for awhile, and I see only unhappy coincidence in the receipt of the letter and the elimination of Trucco's job, not cause and effect.

I think it much more likely that Trucco's position was going to be eliminated long before Richardson was invited up to speak. I would reach this conclusion even if Richardson had been the best friend of Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas---even if he'd been family. I don't pretend to know why this is so. Let the Blue Island bloggers figure that out. (I do hope, of course, that Ms. Trucco soon finds a new and satisfactory position.)

But let's maintain a little perspective: Judge Richardson didn't get anyone fired. He did violate Canon 7. It was not a serious violation; it was done unwittingly, unthinkingly, and for the purpose of making a (weak) joke. But judicial candidates, especially appointed judges hoping to retain their seats, go before the public eye with targets on their backs. Anything that can be misconstrued, will be. By someone. We lawyers are supposed to be good with words; judicial candidates must use particular care in choosing their words. Judge Richardson's misstep is a cautionary tale for all.

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