Blog: Cook County: The Court Corruption Capital of America in 1980-90s

By Jim Nowlan

Cook County, Illinois, became the court corruption capital of America during the 1980-90s, an irremovable stain that highlights our state’s reputation around the world for political and judicial corruption. The U.S. Department of Justice sought and achieved convictions of scores(!) of Chicago-based judges, court personnel and attorneys, for blatantly operating “pay for (in)justice bribery mills” right out of courtrooms.

Looking back, it is almost unbelievable how bad it was. For example, as mob lawyer cum informant Robert Cooley writes in When Corruption Was King (2004), Cooley “paid off a ‘law and order’ judge to get an acquittal on a murder charge for Harry Aleman, a hit man dubbed the Outfit’s ‘killing machine.’”

The federal investigations were dubbed Operations Greylord and Gambat, and their revelations of justice gone stinking foul in the nation’s largest court system (Cook County Circuit Court) sickened the nation. As Cooley’s book details, “the Mob controlled the courts, the police, and the politicians.”

How could this have come to be? Well, as a student of Illinois politics for six decades, I contend it all grew out of control from the development of the urban political machines in the 19th Century, in Chicago and other major cities. Lacking top educations and access to the business and financial worlds, savvy newcomer Irish, Italian and other hyphenated-Americans turned to politics for their careers. They developed a favor-reward system that benefited their voters, and themselves. It was called “doing well while doing good.”

The game was simple: You help vote the Machine into control of the political system, and the Machine will in return bestow favors on you and your family: jobs, informal welfare, contracts, and help in getting out of scrapes. Everybody wins. And, the most important favors often skirted or offended legality, and were indeed often bestowed inside the judicial system, such as dismissal of a DUI charge against a family’s young son; favorable treatment in a civil or even a criminal case; even getting a Mob murderer off scot-free!

In most of the American political system, the judicial branch is kept separate from and above the hurly burly of the politics of who gets what—which is largely what politics is about—in the legislative and executive branches. For example, in the federal (national) political system, judges are appointed for life, rather than subject to the pressures of election. In contrast, in Illinois, judges are elected on a partisan basis, from the circuit to the state supreme court levels.

And in Cook County, the elected judiciary has always been part and parcel of the Machine’s modus operandi. After all, the judiciary represented thousands of good-paying, prestigious jobs, which in turn could be rewards given out for loyal service to the Machine, and turned to for judicial favors owed for elevation to the bench.

The Cook County Democratic Party basically controlled who became judges, and who were elevated to higher posts, such as the state Supreme Court. This is because the reward system gave the Party the capacity to endorse its own for judgeships, and then see that the party faithful nominated them in the party’s primary elections. The primary was the election, because Cook County was/is a one-party system, that is, Democrats win all the general elections that follow the primaries.

For decades, and until his indictment on corruption charges in 2019, Chicago alderman Ed Burke chaired the Judicial Nominating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. Because of the power he accrued over half a century in office, such as chair of the finance committee of the Chicago City Council, Burke dominated the judicial nominating committee. Burke “made” hundreds of judges in Cook County, because endorsement by the Party was tantamount to election.

Indeed, Burke’s influence over the system was instrumental in his wife Anne becoming an appellate judge, and then being elevated to the Illinois Supreme Court, where she is at present the chief justice. My friends tell me Anne Burke is a perfectly nice person. Yet no one I knowthinks there is any chance she would have become a member of the state’s highest court—without the influence of her now-indicted husband.

I worry indeed that when Ed Burke is put on trial—he is spending literally millions from his campaign funds to delay his reckoning with justice—the newspaper coverage of the trial, around the nation and world, will begin every story somewhat as follows: Chicago city councilman and former Illinois Democratic powerhouse Ed Burke, whose wife Anne Burke is chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, goes on trial this week for 14 counts of corruption. The charges include blocking a small restaurant owner from getting a license needed to open—until he signed up as a client with Burke’s property tax appeal law firm.

The Burke-Burke connection will generate endless rehashing of corruption in Chicago and on its courts, all of which tarnishes Chicago and Illinois. We must change this—by electing judicial candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court in 2022 who are totally independent of the political world that generated systemic judicial corruption in Cook County and Illinois.



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Paid for by Judicial Fairness Project

Justice Ware was slated, elected and served on Cook County Circuit Court until his retirement in 2003