By Jim Nowlan
Indicted Chicago alderman Ed Burke is back in the news, as he has been regularly during the two years since he was indicted on 14 charges of public corruption. (Young people may come to think his first name is “Indicted”.) The 78-year-old Burke has thus far spent $2.7 million of the $12 million in campaign contributions in various campaign committees that he controls, warding off a trial date.
The federal Justice Department charges against him include one for extorting a mom-and-pop restaurant owner by holding up driveway and remodeling permits until pop agreed to become a client with Burke’s lucrative property tax appeal law firm. Penny ante. Tawdry. Small. Sad.
In his half-century (yes, you read that right) on Chicago’s City Council, Ed Burke amassed great political power and wealth as boss of a key Democratic ward, chair of the City Council Finance Committee and chair, for decades, of the Judicial Nominating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party.
I focus here on Burke and the Illinois courts. We’ll leave the corruption that stains our state for another essay. Here is how Burke shaped our courts to benefit The Organization (as the Cook County Democratic Party is often referred to) and even his family (wife Anne Burke is now Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court). It worked this way, and probably still does, even though Burke was forced to relinquish his various chairmanships when he was indicted:
A judgeship in Illinois is a good job, and has always been compensated nicely. But the great perk has always been the judge’s pension. Until recently, a judge could fully retire after just 20 years and net more in pension payments the day after retirement than his last day on the bench. How could this be: With a pension at 85% of salary, there would no longer be payments into the pension program; nor contributions for health care, and retirement income is not taxed in Illinois. And there is 100% spousal benefit upon the retiree’s death!
So, if you want to be one of the 400 judges in Cook County, or on the appellate and supreme courts, you must submit your credentials to what was the Burke nominating committee. It helps mightily to be able to show work for the Organization, as a precinct captain, active member of a ward or township party organization, significant contribution history to the party, or loyal state legislator. If you pass muster as a loyal supporter of the Party, you are put in a queue to be nominated for election to the court on the Democratic Party label, when openings occur. And while you are waiting, your tenure as an assistant state’s attorney, or in many other government roles, can be credited later as time served on the bench!
Cook County is heavily Democratic, so nomination by the Party in the primary is generally tantamount to election in both the primary and the general election. Few voters know any of the long list of judges on the ballot, so the Party prints “palm cards” that lists party-endorsed candidates, which party activists pass out to voters.
In effect, Ed Burke was for decades the primary gatekeeper to a judgeship, opening the gates to a judgeship or blocking an aspirant forever. This applies to the Illinois Supreme Court as well. Illinois is one of only eight states that elects its supreme court judges on a partisan, or party, basis. Cook County elects three of the state’s seven supreme court judges, countywide, which means they will be Democrats.
These three judges are almost always persons with histories of strong loyalty to the Organization. For example, do you think Chief Justice Anne Burke would ever cross the Organization on an issue such as allowing an independent commission to take redistricting away from the Democratic Party? Or that Justice Burke would recuse herself in cases where the parties involved are clients of her husband’s law firm. And do you think that her hubby Ed Burke might have influenced her moves up the judicial ladder to the state high court? The answers are so obvious as to be painful.
All news stories about Ed Burke’s indictment troubles include a line such as, “Burke’s wife Anne is Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.” For readers, the optics are absolutely horrific, especially in a state with a reputation across the nation for political corruption.
We can begin to clean up the courts. This year there will be contests for two Supreme Court seats. If candidates independent of the long arm of the Cook County Democratic Party are elected in these two districts, which wrap around Cook County, then for the first time in 60 years there will be a majority on the state high court who are not beholden to the Organization.
Let’s take back our courts.