Blog: Judicial Corruption Casts Dark Shadow Over Illinois

By Jim Nowlan

Judicial corruption in Illinois—there has been lots of it over the decades, and it continues to cast a dark shadow over our state.

This is the first in a series of essays about how Illinois courts became corrupt, and of what we can do to eliminate, at least lighten the shadow, of court corruption in our state.

I define political corruption as unearned personal gain at public expense. There is of course illegal corruption, as when in the 1980s and earlier judges in Cook County were bribed to fix hundreds of cases, on everything from DUIs to mob murders(!) (see Illinois Politics, 2010, James D. Nowlan et al).

But there is also “legal corruption,” as in 2011 when now-indicted Chicago alderman Ed Burke hired retired state legislator Robert Molaro for one month at a pay rate of $120,000 per year. This very brief stint in Burke’s office doubled the former lawmaker’s state pension(!), which taxpayers like you and me pay for.

But what does the Burke-Molaro example have to do with judicial corruption, you ask? Corruption is a tangled web, as you will learn; judges are a central part of that web, and that will be my point. You see, powerful alderman Burke was also for decades the chair of the Judicial Nominating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee.

Since Cook County has long been controlled by the Democratic Party, any lawyer nominated for judge in the Democratic primary election, or of a judge nominated to move higher, say, to the Illinois Supreme Court, is almost certain to be elected. So, making nice with Ed Burke was (until he was indicted two years ago on corruption charges) critical to becoming a judge. This power gave Burke broader clout, even to hire state legislators and double their pensions! After all, politicians in the machine all have friends who want to become judges. So, “If I help you get on the bench, I expect your help with my political ambitions in return.”

Ed Burke the alderman—and judicial nominator—even greased the skids for his wife Anne. His role as chair of the party judicial nominating committee was critical to Mrs. Burke’s appointment to the Illinois Appellate Court in 1995 and then her nomination and assured election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1996. Indicted alderman Burke’s wife is now the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court!

Urban political dynasties, such as the one perfected by the late mayor Richard J. Daley in mid-20th Century Chicago and Cook County, were developed a century earlier as reward machines for voters and political bosses.

The equation was simple: You vote for our candidates, and we will reward you and your family with jobs and special favors. For politicians who wanted to advance up the ladder: Prove your loyalty by getting out the vote for us, and we will run you for office, and then for higher office. All the bosses ask is that you support their political objectives while you’re in office, even to making judicial decisions that protect “the machine” from prosecution and jail.

But judges should be above special favors, and from making political decisions on the bench. Citizen trust in our democracy depends upon nonpartisan decisions.

In the essays you will see here, I will illustrate the illegal corruption that has been a terrible blot on our judiciary—such as the scores of judges and court officials in Cook County who were for sale in the 1980s, all uncovered by undercover federal investigations called Operation Greylord and Operation Gambat.

I will also discuss cases of legal corruption on the Illinois Supreme Court, such as the good ol’ boy and gal system in which supreme court judges appoint their successors. And more. Eye opening.

You and I can change this. The seven-judge Illinois Supreme Court has had an unbroken Democratic majority since 1964, because of legal gerrymandering crafted by Boss Daley in 1962. That majority has been part and parcel of the reward system I have described. Indeed, the Democratic majority has consistently protected the urban machine, and tainted our judiciary.

This year, for the first time in decades, voters can overturn the reward system of the Illinois judiciary, by demanding that  candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court in two suburban Chicago districts reject the machine politics that have tainted our judiciary for decades. You and I can eliminate partisan reward politics on the state high court.


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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