The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

The next day, Lefkow's picture is on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. AOL features her on its main screen, with a poll: Do you agree with this judge? Should Congress condemn anti-judge rhetoric? Could recent harsh comments about judges encourage violence?

Her own answer is such a stern yes that a few weeks earlier, after Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas linked violence against judges to their "political" decisions, she shot him a letter.

"Sir," she wrote, "I challenge you to explain to my fatherless children how any judicial decision that I ever made justified the violence that claimed the lives of my husband and mother. As I will not reveal my daughters' names or addresses, I will be glad to convey to them any statement you wish to make that might ameliorate the further pain that you have caused my family."

She never heard back.

Then the trip to Washington is over. So is the brief, sharp purpose it brought to her shapeless new life. She flies home to Chicago, to gray skies and a cold. She knows she should go back to work. But more than ever now, she feels tired, exhausted by the realization that there is no quick way out of grief, just a slow trek through the days.


By 9:15 a.m. on July 12, Lefkow has had four cups of coffee, received calls from three of her daughters and shown a couple of relations from Topeka around her courtroom. "This," she tells her relatives, sweeping a hand around the room with a homeowner's pride, a mother's tenderness and a pilgrim's awe, "is Mies van der Rohe at his best." This, courtroom No. 1925 in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, is also where Lefkow met at least two men who hoped to kill her, Bart Ross and Matt Hale.

Day after day, the angry and afflicted ride the elevators up the glass-and-steel skyscraper into these windowless, towering, walnut-walled rooms where law is intended to civilize emotion. Emotion, it turns out, sometimes rules.

On this Tuesday, her first day back on the bench, Lefkow's staff is afraid of emotion in the court. They persuade their boss to post a sign on the courtroom door. It thanks everyone who has expressed condolences and ends in bold type:

"In court proceedings, Judge Lefkow respectfully requests that no reference be made to the matter."

In her chambers, Lefkow is elated, nervous. Can she even remember how to navigate through a database to find a court case?

"Hey, it came up!" she says, sitting at her computer. "Isn't that so cool?"

She squeezes her lips, leans into the screen and studies a case about alleged police misconduct in suburban Markham.

"Judge," says her courtroom deputy, Mike Dooley, poking his head in the doorway, "your guests are here."

For the first time since Feb. 28, she shrugs on her black robe, a cheap old polyester and cotton gown she's too thrifty to replace though she hates the way it hangs.

She zips.

In the hallway, she stands flanked by marshals, like an actor poised for curtain call. She curls her knuckles under her chin, the way she often does when she's thinking or self-conscious or fighting tears.

Then she's back, back up there in her old seat on the bench, smiling at the attorneys, listening to the facts, asking questions, riffling through papers, making decisions.

No mention is made of "the matter."

The procedure is as familiar as breath, the place as familiar as home. The only visible change is the big old walnut desk on her left. Michael's. He's no longer around to pop by and wave from the courtroom's back row, but she has brought over his office desk to keep her company.