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Who is judging Illinois’ judges?

A joint WGN Investigates and Medill Watchdog investigation asks the question: Who is judging Illinois’ judges?

For more information, log on to the Medill Watchdog website.
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In March, voters will be selecting Cook County judges from a long list of candidates. So, we asked some voters at a train station in Glenview and a nearby barber shop if they knew any of the judicial candidates running in the 12th subcircuit and none did.

You can read all about one of the candidates, Judge James Kaplan, on his campaign web site. He’s dressed in judicial robes and stands shoulder to shoulder with his wife.  In big, bold, red letters he advertises a life-time of service to “our community,” the 12th judicial subcircuit.

Yet an investigation by WGN Investigates and the Medill Watchdog at Northwestern found the judge spent much of his life living in Lake County.  Two decades in a house in Lincolnshire which the judge still owns there. He only rented a place in the 12th subcircuit a couple of years ago when he was appointed judge by the Illinois Supreme Court. However, you would never guess that by his campaign literature.

“Judges are subject to the rules that bind us all,” according to Jamelle Sharpe a law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.  He added, “The spirit of the law is that people are part of the communities in which they are judging. There is a specific legal requirement that indicates whether or not that person is part of the community and that’s the residency requirement.”

Just like Congressional representatives, judges running for election in a subcircuit must live in the same area as the voter. Leave it to a judge though to find a grey area in the law. Some judges, like Kaplan, keep two homes, one in Lake County where his wife and son continue to live and a rental in the 12th subcircuit of Cook County.

Judge Kaplan told us he’s doing this because he loves being a judge and insists he’s  within the law. During our conversation, however, the judge slipped calling Lincolnshire his home.  He quickly corrected himself calling it his other home. He added that where he lived is none of our business.

According to Sharpe, “It’s when the interpretation of the law looks strange – the interpretation of the facts look odd and the courts come to a conclusion that confidence in the decision to be eroded and hence the power of the judiciary become eroded.”

We wanted to ask the Illinois Supreme Court about its appointment of Judge James Kaplan, but a spokesman declined to comment. It’s an important question because the Court appointed Kaplan twice. Each time Kaplan packed his bags and rented an apartment in a different Cook County subcircuit.

Sharpe says, “You can’t prevent somebody from undertaking the position if they comply with the letter but you don’t have to choose them if you don’t think they are complying with the spirit.”

That leaves Kaplan to beat Samuel Bae, running for the first time and James Hanlon Jr, who votes as a Democrat some of the time and a Republican other times. Also running is Ralph Meczyk. He’s one of the attorneys who represented convicted police officer Drew Peterson. Meczyk decades ago was caught up in a federal investigation. He pled guilty to income tax charges, but later won a pardon from former President Clinton.

So voters in the 12th subcircuit, come March, those are your choices if you choose to vote.

Who knew, of all people, the most powerful judges in the state are not following the law. All this week, we’ve exposed how judges in Cook County are skirting more than one law, like getting tax breaks where they shouldn’t or living outside of their courtroom subcircuit. But in tonight’s joint WGN investigation with the Medill Watchdog unit of Northwestern, some question why should they follow the law if their big brothers and sisters, the Supremes aren’t?

In Illinois no one has more power than the Supremes. These seven people can say yea or nay to any law passed in Springfield, including the requirement that a judge has to live in his or her subcircuit at the time of election. The Supremes ruled, they do. But it is the second part of the law that’s not so clear. It requires a judge to retain residency or stay living in the district for their six year term and beyond.

As you’ve seen in our investigation, “Judging the Judges” we’ve found judges finding ways around the residency rule without anyone questioning them. It raises questions about the need for subcircuits originally designed to have judges elected from the neighborhoods where they live. Robert Cummins once chaired the Judicial Inquiry Board, and is a watchdog agency for judges. When asked why we have subcircuits, Cummins responded, “If I was making the call, we wouldn’t.”

After all, why should a lower level judge worry about where he or she lives when the highest court in Illinois is ignoring the residency rules too. You see there is a law on the books for the Supremes too called the Judicial Vacancies Act. It says that they must appoint a judge to fill a Cook County subcircuit vacancy with someone from the subcircuit. They haven’t always done that.

According to Cummins, “Although some members of the court, the Supreme Court who are involved in appointments have a fairly credible screening committee that they’ve established, the process still, I think lacks credibility.”

Take Judge Lauretta Higgins Wolfson. She ran for election and lost. The Supreme Court then appointed her to the 13th subcircuit. The problem is Wolfson lives in a beautiful high-rise on the lake far away from the subcircuit serving Palatine, Schaumburg and Hanover Park.

Judge Allan Masters is serving as judge from Chicago’s north side after the Supreme Court put him there. However, he’s currently running for election from his actual subcircuit which is further away on the North Shore. Neither Judge would comment.

Then there is Freddrenna Lyle, a former alderman from the south side. After she lost her aldermanic election, the Court appointed her to fill-in as a judge. She’s bounced from the 2nd to the 7th both outside of her neighborhood. She’s running for Appellate Court judge this year. She  said she understood that if she wanted to run in the subcircuit she would have to move. That’s why she decided to run countywide for the Appellate Court.

Larry Suffredin represents the Chicago Bar Association, “The only person who can tell us what the law is and if it’s constitutional is the Illinois Supreme Court. And nobody has brought a case so it’s a little bit like challenging people’s addresses. If nobody challenges them the law just kind of evolves on its own.”

We asked to speak with the Supreme Court Justices about the law that appears to be ignored and we received this statement: “On matters of law, the Illinois Supreme Court speaks through its opinions. The eligibility and qualifications for election to judicial office are contained in the Illinois Constitution.”  So what does the Constitution say? To be a judge a candidate must be a U.S. citizen, a licensed attorney, and a resident of the unit which selects him.

For more on the investigation log on to Medill Watchdog website.

Finding out where a judge lives ought to be difficult. After all, no judge wants an unhappy defendant knocking at their door or a reporter for that matter. But, the special protection afforded judges for their security also shields them from questions about whether or not they’re playing by the rules. And no one seems to be checking.

The law says if you’re going to run for judge in a subcircuit you must live there. And, it added one more requirement: until the judge wins re-election six years later, the judge has to stay there. The stakes are high. Falsifying information can get a judge kicked off the bench. Our investigation, “Judging the Judges” uncovered a number of judges who are skirting the law.

Calling it a ridiculous way to be electing judges, former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas says where a person lives should not be a factor in electing quality judges. Valukas oversaw one of the largest cases of judicial corruption, Operation Greylord, where 15 judges went to prison for bribery and other charges. He worries about electing judges through subcircuits, “The issue of residency as we all know is such an elusive thing. We have political people who claim to live in a community, but they have their magnificent house in some other community – well I maintain the address. And so this idea of residency within the district seems to be a slippery slope,” he says.

We found some judges teetering on that slippery slope. Judge Patrick Sherlock and his wife bought this condo last year in his subcircuit. But his wife lives here in the Gold Coast, out of the subcircuit. Where does the judge live? He wouldn’t say. But according to a property deed, Patrick Sherlock’s tax bills are sent to Lake Shore Drive, way out of his subcircuit. Living in the subcircuit would be legal. For the judge, living on Lake Shore Drive would not.

Years ago, Robert Cummins sat on the Judicial Inquiry Board, a kind of judicial watchdog. According to Cummins, “Given this argument about residency and people being able to move from one neighborhood to another, that controversy certainly underscores the fact that legitimacy of the thing is at least an issue.” He adds, “Dishonesty isn’t one of the hallmarks of judicial service.”

Only one judge has ever been disciplined for violating the residency requirement. Part of the reason could be because it is so hard to prove. A judge can skirt the law by claiming to live with family or friends. Our investigation uncovered a few examples.

Judge Gloria Chevere and her husband owned a home outside of her subcircuit for more than 20 years. Yet, when she ran for judge in 2006 she claimed she lived in her cousin’s home. Living with her cousin would be legal. Living with her husband would not. A couple years later she and her husband took out a mortgage at their home out of the subcircuit. The contract requires the borrower occupy the property as the principal residence. The judge signed the document. Remember if this was her principal residence at the time she ran for election and the next six years, then she would have broken the law.

CaptureIt’s a similar story for Judge Beatriz Santiago. Before she chose to run for judge she owned a home out of her subcircuit. Then the 42-year-old moved back to her childhood home. Living with her mom and dad would be legal because it’s in her subcircuit. Staying in her own home would not be legal.

“I’m not as fond of subcircuits.  I was opposed to them when they first happened in the General Assembly,” said Larry Suffredin. Suffredin represents the Chicago Bar Association which rates judge’s qualifications. “Now a candidate who on their petitions and their statement of candidacy says they live in the unit of government which is the subcircuit and they don’t, is subject to a challenge,” according to Suffredin.

Santiago was challenged. In sworn testimony before an election hearing officer, the would be judge claimed she moved back to her family two-flat occupied by 10 people including her brothers and sisters, their spouses and kids to care for her father who was recently diagnosed with Parkinsons. Taking only makeup and clothes, she left behind furniture and a big-screen-TV. At her own home she pays the mortgage, phone, electric and cable bills. The mail goes to her house out of the subcircuit. Yet Santiago testified she’s a landlord renting her home to family members for a third of the mortgage. Under oath, she said there was no contract or bank records because it’s a cash deal and she spends all the money. It’s just a coincidence that Cook County Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios talked to her about becoming a judge before she moved out to care for her father.

The Hearing Officer ruled that a number of facts about Santiago’s residency were not “entirely plausible,” but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove she didn’t move in with her family. Santiago won her seat on the bench. However, our investigation raises even more questions. Four months ago, the judge took out a $184,500 mortgage on her home outside of the subcircuit. In order to get the loan she promised it would be her principal residence.

Santiago wouldn’t comment. Chevere says she kept her voter registration in the subcircuit. She only moved after getting clearance to do so. She wouldn’t tell us anything else.

Public records show they also benefited from a homeowner exemption. That’s the property tax break all homeowners get. Now it’s against the law to get an exemption if it is not your principal residence. So the two judges were either telling the truth about living in their homes to get the tax break or living with relatives in their subcircuit, but it can’t be both.

Judge Chevere took the tax breaks a step further. As homeowners, she and her husband received a special exemption for families that earn less than $100,000 dollars a year. That’s surprising since the judge alone earns $180,979 a year, way over the limit allowed.

All of this prompts many of the leading legal minds in Chicago to fervently complain, electing judges this way should end. When asked if we should abolish subcircuits, Valukas said, “Yes!”

            Tomorrow night we’ll look at the highest court in Illinois and how the Supremes seem to be ignoring the law on residency.

For more on the investigation log on to Medill Watchdog website.

Does the judge live on the south side or along the Gold Coast? We know where he should live if he followed the law.  It’s one of the many questionable things we’ve found this week in our joint WGN investigation with the Medill Watchdog unit of Northwestern: Judging the Judges.

Let’s start with the basics. Before Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, or any judge for that matter, could put on the robe, they have to pass a test. One, be a U.S. citizen, two, a licensed attorney, and three, a resident of the unit which selects him. It is a fancy way of saying they must live in the same community as the voter.

It’s kind of like electing a Chicago alderman or a state representative or congressman. To win an election they have to live in their district. In Cook County some judges are elected countywide, while others are from one of 15 smaller areas, called subcircuits.

CaptureOur investigation, Judging the Judges, found some of those subcircuit judges living elsewhere. Once elected, they moved out of their homes into posh condos. Some others we found leaving the South Side for the North Shore. That’s not what lawmakers had in mind back in 1991 when they created the 15 subcircuits in Cook County to help bring more minorities to the bench.

“So the idea of the subcircuit was if you ran you were going to live in that subcircuit,” said Larry Suffredin. Suffredin represents the Chicago Bar Association which originally fought against the law, then accepted it was here to stay.

“I do think judges help stabilize neighborhoods. They are significant public officials. They are people that kids can look up to.  Neighbors can feel comfortable having in their community,” he said.

If only they’d stay in the community.

In 1992, Leida Gonzalez-Santiago was one of the first to win in a newly created Hispanic subcircuit. Seven years later she moved out of her district.

Vanessa Hopkins had been a lawyer for only a few short years before winning a seat on the bench in the far south side. Three years later she bought a condo out of her subcircuit signing a mortgage that says it would be her principal residence. Neither judge would comment.

Then more than a decade later, a constitutional question flipped the notion of residency on its head. Attorney General Lisa Madigan weighed in saying you can’t force a judge to stay in the subcircuit after they run for re-election or what is commonly called retention. According to Suffredin, “Many of these judicial deserts ended up losing the judges they had.”

Judge Peter Flynn is another who moved out. He won election from a south side subcircuit, but after Madigan’s opinion he jumped ship moving to a wealthy neighborhood on the north shore. He wouldn’t speak with us, but it begs the question: Why keep this subcircuit system if a judge can just move from the community that elected him?

Robert Cummins once sat on the Judicial Inquiry Board which investigates judges. He opposes subcircuits.

“I’m not sure that heritage or gender or anything of things matter as to whether a judge is qualified or can perform,” according to Cummins. He asks, “Does it make any difference whether the judge grew up and lived in Hyde Park when he was elected.  Is he going to be a different person when he moves to Rogers Park?” Even though a judge is elected from a smaller subcircuit, once on the bench they must do bench work for everyone in the county.

After the Madigan ruling, Springfield took up the issue again.  Lawmakers didn’t kill subcircuits, but it did try to force the residency rule. Lawmakers passed a new election law requiring a judge running for a subcircuit seat live in the neighborhood even when seeking retention. Judges elected before 2008 could move after they won retention, but not anyone in the future. So who’s watching them? According to Suffredin, “Nobody’s watching them.”

Our investigation found other ways judges are skirting the law. We’ll have that story tomorrow night when we find judges moving in with relatives, buying second homes, and even showing questionable property tax breaks.

For more information, log on to the Medill Watchdog website.

For many of us, the only image we have of a judge comes from movies or TV shows. For the next four nights, we’re going to show you a lot of them by asking a simple question: Who is judging the judges?  You might be surprised. Our joint WGN investigation with the Medill Watchdogs of Northwestern exposes where the majority of least qualified judges are coming from.

For the first time ever, as the curtain draws back allowing cameras in Illinois to peek into some courtrooms, viewers are getting a glimpse at the absolute power behind the robe.  Cameras have yet to be allowed in Cook County and unless you are before a judge, you probably can’t name any of the 400-plus judges or which ones you voted for in the last election.

Two decades ago, the leaders in Springfield tried to fix the problem of too many unknown judges by breaking up the massive list into smaller bite-sized subcircuits. It seemed like a win-win, these subcircuits. Neighbors could meet the judicial candidates because they lived there. The winning judge would be from their community bringing more minorities to the bench. In Cook County, that even meant Republicans. A good idea with good intentions, but like the old proverb says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When asked what he thought of subcircuits, Anton Valukas, a lawyer and Chairman of Jenner & Block said, “I think they’re terrible.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Valukas as U.S. Attorney oversaw the prosecution of one of the largest court scandals in the United States: Operation Greylord. Charges of bribery, fixing a murder case, even a wiretap in a judge’s chamber led to 92 indictments including the conviction of 15 judges. According to Valukas, “All of a sudden everybody got religion, as they say in the trade. So I would say corruption is not the issue right now.”

Instead, Valukas says the problem is weak judges created by the subcircuit system.

“The issue right now is competence and the fact that you continue to have politics involved in this process always opens the door to the potential of corruption in the future. So why have a system that does that?” he says.

He added that unlike judges who run countywide, the candidates who run for one of the 15 smaller subcircuit seats rarely face tough challengers. Most are always backed by the Democratic Party, they rarely have to prove their judicial chops to win.

“I think it probably has not been the best way to improve the quality of our judiciary,” said Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin. Suffredin is also the attorney for the Chicago Bar Association, a group that rates the qualifications of judicial candidates. “I think if you look at the judges who have had problems in the last 20 years, a greater percentage of them have been elected from the subcircuits than have been elected countywide.  I think those who are elected countywide are vetted in a much different way.  It’s a tougher race to run.  I mean this is a huge county.  And they have to present their credentials to a lot of different people,” said Suffredin.

Like the Chicago Bar Association, a host of other legal watchdogs judge the judges on integrity, legal knowledge, temperament, and even punctuality. We checked the rankings and last year, a half-dozen judges elected to the bench failed to win the approval of three or more groups and five of those were subcircuit judges.

According to Suffredin, “I think what they do is create an artificial world in which people run.  One of the things we see is that the candidates who run in the subcircuits in a greater proportion choose not to be evaluated by the Bar Association, choose not to present their credentials to a broader group of citizens to determine why they would be good judges or bad judges.” In other words, they’re avoiding being judged.

Newly-elected Judge Daniel Degnan from the 3rd subcircuit didn’t bother to submit his qualifications. His dad was a top strategist for Mayor Daley. Prior to Election Day; one by one all his opponents dropped out, including a sitting judge. Degnan waltzed unopposed to the bench. Judge Kimberly Lewis was never vetted failing to submit her credentials to any legal watchdog. She beat out a sitting judge ranked qualified.

In 2010, four judges failed to win approval, three of them from subcircuits. In 2008, six out of seven judges not recommended came out of the subcircuit. And in 2006, five out of six judges were also from a subcircuit which raises the question, who’s judging the judges? According to Valukas, “No one! In the subcircuits even fewer than no one if that’s possible. You’re talking about in the subcircuits the likelihood of the person who is judging the judges and most likely to make the decision who’s going to be elected judge is some political boss.”

Take the case of Judge Leida Gonzalez-Santiago. She benefited from the subcircuit law which you recall encouraged neighborhood diversity. She was the first Hispanic woman elected to the bench even though the Tribune reported a Hispanic Bar Association called her unqualified.  Yet she won with the backing of House Speaker Mike Madigan and her own husband, a state representative. And once a judge is elected, it’s pretty much a job for life no matter how competent. Six years later, she won again even after a lawyers group blasted her for putting kids at risk during custody battle cases.

Valukas called it, “A crisis in your world. They’re before a judicial system asking somebody to make a decision on something that could be incredibly important to them. Anything from a divorce case, a child custody case to a property damage case you name it and they are before someone who may not even know the rudiments of the law and whose temperament maybe an absolute disaster. That’s not a way you have a system.”

None of the judges we identified returned our phone calls. The issue of qualification is only one subject we examined. Tomorrow we’ll look at how a system designed to bring minorities to the bench is being abused.

For more information, log on to the Medill Watchdog website.

A joint WGN Investigates and Medill Watchdog investigation asks the question: Who is judging Illinois’ judges?

We’ll tell you what we found out in a four-part series that’s airing over the next four days on the WGN News at Nine, December 2-6.