January 6, 2013
Within seconds of McHenry County Judge Maureen McIntyre being appointed to preside over Illinois' political heater manslaughter case on Friday, you could almost hear her being "scrubbed."
It's not about cleansing bubbles. Not in Illinois.
"Scrubbing" is a reporter's term, for checking the background, finding the friends and friends of friends, who they owe and who they know. It's about figuring out if the person being scrubbed is somebody somebody sent.
Some of you might think it's unnecessary, perhaps even demeaning for a judge to be so scrutinized before a case. But this isn't any ordinary heater case. Not after the Chicago police and the Cook County state's attorney's office dragged their heels for years in a death investigation, leaving a special grand jury to indict the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley on involuntary manslaughter charges.
And Illinois — where many judges from traffic court to the state Supreme Court are beholden to their political bosses — isn't any state.
So is it appropriate to scrub a judge? It might not only be appropriate, it might be required.
"Absolutely," said David Morrison, deputy director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, when I called him late last week. "Especially given the context of this case.
"The reason judges wear the black robes is to convey the message that they are interchangeable, that it doesn't matter who the judge is, that the justice one judge hands out is the same as another," he said.
"But whether that's true or not is another issue," Morrison said. "And clearly, there was a problem with selecting a judge in this case in Cook County, and the courts addressed that by going outside, to another county. So it's perfectly fair to ask the question: Did that process work?"
I called Morrison because he was quoted in a Tribune story two weeks ago, about judicial politics playing out through the Illinois Supreme Court. Reporters Jeff Coen and Todd Lighty found that even though seven judges were rejected by voters, those with prime Democratic clout were put back on the bench by the state high court.
One of these is Cook County Judge Alfred Swanson, backed by the most powerful Democratic judge-picker in the state, House Speaker Michael Madigan. Swanson lost his Democratic primary in March 2012, but was picked to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of another judge in November.
The guys in charge of the black robe crowd in Cook County — and in high courts like the state Supreme Court — have been Madigan and his Southwest Side ally Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, chairman of the Democratic Party's judicial slating committee and married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
For years, Burke and Madigan and the Daleys and the late 36th Ward Democratic boss Sam "Pastries" Banks kept their fingers in the judicial political pie. So did former Democratic and Republican boss Edward Vrdolyak. Before he made a fortune in Cicero and before he was sent to prison on corruption charges, Vrdolyak could make a judge with quick phone call. Fast Eddie even had judges as bartenders at his famous barbecues.
We want to think of judges as independent, and there are many who come from the political system and serve honorably. It's not the individual judge that's the problem. It's the system that reeks of cynicism.
Add to this the fact that Madigan's daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is the top law enforcement officer in the state, and you might get a strange idea: That blindfolded Lady Justice can still wink at a ward boss.
This, however, shouldn't reflect badly on McIntyre, 65, a Republican. The need for scrubbing comes because of all that's gone on before.
And now she will rule in the case of the People vs. Richard Vanecko, 39, the nephew of one mayor, the grandson and namesake of another. In December, Vanecko was indicted by a special grand jury on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of David Koschman, 21.
Authorities said Vanecko stood 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighed 230 pounds when he punched the inebriated Koschman, who stood 5-foot-5-inches tall and weighed 125 pounds in the early morning of April 25, 2004, after a night of drinking in the bars of Division and Dearborn streets.
It is a case larded with clout and politics, a case that took eight years before charges were filed, a case in which the cops and the highly political Cook County state's attorney's office were indifferent at best.
If a Daley were the victim, or a Madigan or a Burke, let me tell you what would happen. Cook County judges would have fought terrible battles behind the scenes to get the case. But they don't want this one. This is one that nobody wants.
The first trial judge recused himself, but only when he was torched by public opinion after disclosing that he had multiple ties to the Daley political tribe. Had another Cook County judge been selected, chances are he or she would have been tied to a political somebody. That would have drawn too much heat. So the state Supreme Court was brought in, and asked McHenry County to find a judge.
"Mr. Vanecko deserves a fair trial, as does the Koschman family, as do the people of Illinois," Morrison said. "What's required is dispassionate consideration of the facts and a fair resolution under the law."
Even here, in Illinois.
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