Cook County judges have helped the wealthy, well-known and well-connected to keep their family matters hidden while using the public's courts, according to a Tribune investigation. (Posted: April 27, 2013)

Cook County Judge James O'Hara used initials in 2011 when he filed for legal separation from his wife. O'Hara said in an interview that someone tried to break into his home in 2008 and that his cars were broken into several times after that. He said he had police protection and believed he was targeted as a judge.

O'Hara didn't share any worries with the Cook County sheriff's Judicial Security Unit, which is responsible for keeping judges safe, said spokesman Frank Bilecki. The unit responded to O'Hara's home on New Year's Eve 2008 when someone apparently smashed the rear glass door with a chunk of concrete.

“Judge O'Hara stated … that he did not feel himself or his wife to be in any kind of danger,” the sheriff's report said. No arrests were made, and O'Hara has not reported other problems to the sheriff, Bilecki said. O'Hara said he and his wife have reconciled.

Two other Cook County judges, Eileen Brewer and Margaret Brennan, had their entire domestic files sealed. Brennan and Brewer, who used initials in her filing, have said they had safety concerns.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez said it was heightened concern for her and her family's safety that led her to ask Cook County Judge Patrick Murphy to seal her 2012 legal separation from her husband, lawyer Alan Launspach.

Valdez said in an interview that her worries stemmed from 2005, when a gunman broke into the North Side home of federal Judge Joan Lefkow and killed her husband and mother.

The file “contains extensive personal information, my address, my accounts and so on,” Valdez said. “I have small children. I am concerned about my personal safety and the safety of my children.”

Launspach said there was no specific threat at the time against his wife and that he agreed to the sealing. He said the Tribune was invading his and Valdez's privacy, adding, “Judges deserve a degree of privacy.”

Bryant, of Public Justice, said judges and other prominent people should be treated the same as everyone else. He noted that sensitive information — such as financial accounts, home addresses and Social Security numbers — can be removed, but that the entire file and people's names should not be concealed.

“What happens in the court system is supposed to be open to the public,” Bryant said. “The public pays for it and needs to be able to monitor it and make sure it is working well and it's not corrupt.”

Judge: I ‘was wrong'

The Tribune asked Murphy for the order sealing the Valdez file, as the paper did earlier this year for 126 cases hidden in the Law and Chancery divisions. Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the presiding judges of those divisions declined to provide the orders, telling the Tribune to get a lawyer to file motions to intervene in each case.

Murphy, however, reviewed the Valdez case on his own. In an April 5 order that he made public, Murphy said he sealed the file because of “extensive identifying information” and Valdez's concern over the murders of another federal judge's family. Murphy did not mention a specific threat against Valdez. He declined to comment further.

Murphy also reviewed another domestic case he sealed, one involving Tyna Robertson, the mother of Urlacher's son.

Robertson's child custody dispute with Urlacher made headlines for years, generating stories about the star linebacker sending Robertson profane text messages and complaining that Robertson blocked his court-ordered visits with their son.

Robertson filed for divorce in 2011 from her husband, William Goehrke, a European basketball player at the time. Robertson asked that the entire divorce file be sealed, and Murphy agreed.

Court records show Robertson told Murphy she was concerned her children would be harassed or kidnapped because of her relationship with Urlacher.

“Safety was the main concern,” Robertson said in an interview.

Goehrke could not be reached for comment.

After reviewing the case, Murphy issued an order saying he “was wrong” in sealing it and that any private information could simply be removed from the file. He called Robertson and Goehrke to his Bridgeview courtroom on April 19 to voice any concerns they might have if the file became public.

Neither appeared, and Murphy unsealed it. Robertson later said she never received notice to be in court and was upset Murphy unsealed her divorce.

“It doesn't make any sense,” she said. “Why was my case set for a hearing to be opened and none of the other ones were?”

Tribune reporters Alex Richards and Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.

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