Monday, March 01, 2021

Or you could just run? Some suggestions if you're thinking about it -- part 1

In my last post I teased a darkly humorous postscript to my judicial campaign adventures. I redeem that promise herewith:

This is a funnier story when I suggest or infer that I somehow possess a Kiss of Death or Cloud of Doom or otherwise cursed the victors. But I do not actually dabble in the Dark Arts. It is simply a matter of historical fact that the persons who won the races that I entered in 1994 and 1996 ultimately lost... big time.

The winner of my 1996 primary race never even made it to the November ballot. Appointed by the Supreme Court, slated by the Democratic Party, and endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, the successful primary candidate went on a post-primary vacation to Belize... where he was busted by local authorities for having marijuana in his fanny pack. When word got out about his guilty plea, the judge in question (who had been assigned, naturally, to Narcotics Court) withdrew from the ballot...

... Leaving the field clear for a Republican, of all things, to win the race, unopposed. (There were actually three countywide Republican candidates contesting the 13 vacancies in 1996, which tells you how long ago this was.) I belive this candidate holds the distinction of being the last Republican Cook County judicial candidate elected countywide.

As a Republican, this judge was never my opponent, so even if you care to ascribe to me some Dark Powers, despite my careful denial above, the effect of my 'curse' on him should have been more or less tangential, not direct. And, indeed, this person even got retained once, in 2002, although he was already facing charges brought by the Judicial Inquiry Board. In 2003, this judge got a 30-day suspension from the Illinois Courts Commission. By the time the 2006 election rolled around, he was gone.

The candidate who won my 1994 race was first appointed to the bench in 1991. After his initial appointment expired in 1992, he stayed in office pursuant to three recall orders before handily winning the first primary election in which I 'just ran'.

The problem was that this judge was not actually living in the 10th Subcircuit when he ran for office; he falsely claied his parents' address as his own. The Judicial Inquiry Board ultimately lodged a complaint against him, in 2002, raising this charge (and others) and the Illinois Courts Commission removed him from office in 2004.

There are any number of lessons you could draw from these examples. Never wear a fanny pack, for one. And the others?

I hope you don't need me to point out that politics in this county isn't always played according to Hoyle. Just last week, WGN-TV carried news of a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago that names Chicago as the most corrupt city in the nation. Again. You may blush and stammer about it, but a good many of your friends and neighbors take a sort of perverse pride in this dubious civic achievement: We're Number One!

The corrosive effect of this systemic corruption can not be understated.

But let’s be clear: The problem is not that everyone is hinky and nothing is on the level. Most people -- the vast majority of people -- are honest, and at least as trustworthy as their interests allow, and even those who are inclined to bend, or ignore, the rules don’t always do so. As is true of every walk of life, there are crooks and thieves in politics. There are others who are in it solely for their own selfish purposes. But there are also many truly dedicated public servants. The problem is figuring out who is who.

In our local culture, where corruption is tolerated, even sort of celebrated, one can never truly be certain that anything is truly on the up-and-up. That's the corrosive effect of long-term corruption. Doubts grow about people, about institutions, about everything. If something happened once, and was exposed, how many times has it happened without detection?

Take the case of George J.W. Smith. Appointed to an 11th Subcircuit vacancy in 1995 by the Supreme Court on the recommendation of the late Justice Charles Freeman, he lost his 1996 primary race –- but was returned to the bench via another appointment, this one from the late Justice Mary Ann McMorrow. In the 1998 primary, in a crowded field, Smith squeaked through, ultimately winning election to a different 11th Subcircuit vacancy.

There might have been a happy ending to this tale but for the fact that Judge Smith decided to divorce his wife. If we were to do a post on what not to do if one successfully reaches the bench, this would be high on the list -- especially where, as in the case of Judge Smith, he allegedly asked his wife to contribute $10,000 of what supposedly amounted to a $30,000 bribe to secure the initial 1995 appointment.

But... a bribe to who?

At the time, suspicion centered on former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak. It was well-known, and even well-documented, that Justice Freeman was inclined to accept Vrdolyak’s recommendations when judicial vacancies needed to be filled.

“If you want to be a Cook County judge, see Edward Vrdolyak. That’s the advice Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman has given more than one judicial hopeful.” That’s how Abdon Pallasch and Chuck Neubauer began an article in the October 24, 2000 Chicago Sun-Times. In that same article, Pallasch and Neubauer quote Freeman’s lavish praise of Vrdolyak:

“He has the ability to reach out to the Democratic Party, to some of the committeemen who I’ve never had a rapport with -- he likes to be a player,” Freeman said. “Have I talked with him about doing that kind of thing for other candidates? Yes I have.

“He’s had value to me, to people that I’ve wanted to prepare. He would bring together black committeemen to support candidates -- get ‘em in a room and have a breakfast. Who can do that? I would love to see (Cook County Board President John) Stroger do that. But that’s not what John Stroger would do.”

Smith ultimately pled guilty to federal ‘currency violations’ – withdrawing his $20,000 share of the alleged bribe from his county pension in three increments of less than $10,000 each, that being the “threshold that would have required the bank to notify federal authorities,” according to a March 6, 2002 Tribune article by Matt O’Connor.

That same article reported that Smith admitted filing a false tax return for 1995 (not reporting the $20,000 withdrawal). He also admitted other wrongdoing relating to the handling of his late brother’s estate, but he apparently never identified the person who got the money to allegedly secure the judicial appointment. O’Connor’s article concluded:

Authorities hinted that a broader investigation into the buying of Circuit Court judgeships continues.

“There are other allegations that remain under investigation,” said Blake Hamilton, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge in Chicago. “And we will continue to pursue all aspects of those allegations to their logical conclusion.”

Justice Freeman was never accused of any wrongdoing in connection with Smith’s appointment. According to Abdon M. Pallasch’s May 27, 2002 Sun-Times article, “the realization that she had [reappointed] Smith based on referrals and not knowing enough about his background prompted” Justice McMorrow to name a committee to assist her in vetting potential judicial appointments.

Every Illinois Supreme Court justice has such a committee these days.

But the poison continues to circulate in the system. There are whispers about how this judge, or that one, first got to the bench. There are whispers about who paid what to who, although, of course, never for the record. And before anyone gets any ideas, these sorts of rumors won’t appear in the comments here either. If someone chooses to publish a tell-all memoir, however, I’ll be happy to review it. I won’t hold my breath waiting.

The point is that, in seeking to join the Cook County judiciary, though you are personally purer than Caesar’s wife (as the old expression has it), you may be potentially tainted by your association with Cook County politics. If you are successful, whether by appointment, or election, or through the associate judge process, there may be rumors about you.

Ordinarily, of course, it is not considered a good thing to be friendless and alone. But, when it comes to Cook County politics, being friendless and alone pretty much guarantees that you will never be hauled before a grand jury investigating political corruption.

Contrary to some of the comments to Friday’s post, I am not saying don’t run for judge.... If you’re reading this far, you probably have run, or are thinking about it, or know someone who is. I’m not trying to dissuade you, and I wouldn't succeed if I tried. But I have been closely observing the process for over a decade now and, while I can’t offer any magic formulas for success, I have seen some patterns and practices that you may find helpful as you pursue a career change, and I will start talking about that in my next post on this subject.


Anonymous said...

Don't share your trade craft for free, Jack. If they want to learn, let them "just run" and learn.

Albert said...

...not just the last Republican Cook County judicial candidate elected countywide, he's the only Republican countywide winner since 1968. (Several Republicans won in 1966.) Seem to remember they called him "the accidental judge," appropriately or not.

Anonymous said...

My former opponent sat on the bench wreaking of weed . . . 4 years before it was legal in Illinois.

Anonymous said...

Jack used the former Chicago Sun-Times font. No wonder he didn't win.

Anonymous said...

My former opponent didn’t come to work for months. Then COVID hit and she didn’t come to work for a whole other year.