Thursday, January 27, 2011

Judicial Arrogance? No. Judicial Independence? Yes.

This week, the Chicago press has engaged in extensive coverage of the legal proceedings involving the challenge to Mayoral Candidate Rahm Emanuel’s residency. The proceedings, understandably, hold great public interest. But the press has gone beyond the bounds of responsible journalism in impugning the integrity of several distinguished jurists who have been or will be involved in the legal proceedings before this case is over. Members of the legal community should speak out against the unfair, and unfounded, accusations that the Tribune has leveled against these judges.

The Chicago Tribune, in one supposed “news article” and two editorials (one entitled, “Judicial Arrogance”), has suggested that Illinois Appellate Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall were motivated by politics in issuing the majority appellate decision in the case. The Tribune suggests that both were “anointed by a Chicago political power broker who openly supports an Emanuel opponent.” The Tribune’s statements are baseless and unfair. Both Justice Hoffman and Justice Hall, who collectively have served the people of the State of Illinois as judges for 47 years, were, it is true, slated to run for office by the Democratic Party of Cook County. But so was Justice Bertina E. Lampkin, who penned the dissent in the case, and the Tribune does not question Justice Lampkin’s motives. All three are well-respected judges who have consistently been found qualified by this Bar Association and others.

What all three Justices did in this case was exactly what judges do in every case – they read the briefs, heard the arguments, studied the law, and reached what they believed were the correct decisions interpreting the law and applying it to the facts of the case. We express no opinion on the merits of the Appellate Court’s decision, but it is common in litigation that reasonable lawyers and judges, acting in good faith, reach different decisions. What is important to the rule of law is that we jealously guard judicial independence. If judges are not free to decide cases based upon their best judgment and are instead put under political pressure to reach one conclusion, then our legal system is deserving of no respect. The Tribune is irresponsible in suggesting that any of the three justices who participated in hearing this case was motivated by anything other than his or her honest interpretation of the law.

Even more irresponsible, both the Chicago Sun Times and the Tribune have attacked Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court, suggesting that she should recuse herself from participating in the Illinois Supreme Court’s review of the case because her husband is a “key Chico backer.” The editors of the these two distinguished papers should be ashamed of themselves for impugning Justice Burke’s independence and integrity. There is absolutely no basis on which to suggest that Justice Burke, whose reputation is beyond reproach, would decide any case based upon anything other than her best judgment of what the law requires. And, as a woman, I find particularly offensive the suggestion that Justice Burke would squander her reputation and her sacred oath in service of political views which the press attribute to her husband.

The press should know better. As retired Illinois Appellate Justice Gino DiVito said in an op-ed piece published in today’s Tribune:

“Totally unjustified is the destructive tendency by some to attribute judicial decisions to some sort of bias: to a preordained result, to political identity or payback, to downright corruption. Flippant and erroneous remarks by those who have the privilege of influencing large segments of the public serve no proper purpose and undermine the trust that is so vital to our system of justice. Critical review of court decisions, of course, is desirable. But we owe it to our courts and to ourselves to base such analysis on evidence and applicable law. Criticism should not be based on imagined impropriety or demonization of parties or judges.”