Illinois Supreme Court picks justice's law clerk to be Cook County judge

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman recommended
his senior law clerk for a judgeship. (Tribune file photo)

When the Illinois Supreme Court acted to fill a vacancy on the Cook County bench this year, it looked no further than the chambers of one of its own — Justice Charles Freeman.

There the high court found law clerk Jean Cocozza.

Cocozza got her law degree in 1989, but she has no courtroom experience as a defense lawyer, as a prosecutor or as a litigator of any kind, according to her work history. Half of Cocozza's resume is devoted to talking about her service with her building's condominium association and with her church parish.

No bar association had independently evaluated her work to see whether she was fit to be a judge, and she had not appeared before any judicial screening committee.

She did, however, have the advantage of working for Freeman. She had been his senior law clerk for the past 15 years, according to her resume, with duties including writing drafts of opinions and court orders, and "exercising general supervisory authority over the chamber's staff."

Freeman recommended Cocozza for a judgeship. The court in January agreed and named her a full Circuit Court judge, filling a vacancy created when another judge was elected to the Appellate Court.

Cocozza's state salary jumps from $123,000 a year to about $182,000. On a recent workday, the 48-year-old could be found in traffic court, looking over the shoulder of a more experienced judge who was teaching her the ropes.

Cocozza declined to comment for this story.

Joseph Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court, defended the decision to make Cocozza a judge.

"This is the appointment you're getting worked up about?" Tybor wrote in an email response to questions. "More than 15 years as the senior law clerk to the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court? She's worked on thousands of cases and motions covering virtually every area of Illinois law. There aren't many attorneys in the state who know more about more aspects of Illinois law than she."

Tybor acknowledged that no bar association evaluated Cocozza, nor had any committee screened her qualifications.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers, which has evaluated state judges since 1970, was critical of the process that led to Cocozza's selection.

"The process used to fill these vacancies needs to be transparent, and the resulting judges should take the bench after having substantial experience in litigation matters," said Malcolm Rich, the group's executive director. "Every candidate for a judicial vacancy should be reviewed by both the bar associations and by a judicial selection commission — an approach used by most of the Illinois Supreme Court justices."

Thomas Boleky, head of the Chicago Bar Association's judicial committee, said that in evaluating judges, his group considers a number of factors, including experience and time spent in the courtroom. Typically, he said, his group likes to see potential judges with at least 12 years of experience as a "practicing lawyer."

"We want someone who has practical experience — not only research and writing — but practical experience in court," Boleky said. "Appearing in front of a judge and trying cases is great."

Neither Boleky nor Rich would comment about Cocozza.

The Tribune has previously spotlighted the high court's mysterious and controversial appointments, which included making another onetime Freeman law clerk a judge even though she didn't live in Cook County.

The Illinois Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to fill judicial vacancies through temporary appointments. But in contrast to judicial elections, the court's appointments largely are done with little public input.

Traditionally, the three Democratic justices from Chicago — Freeman, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis — take turns recommending lawyers to fill openings that may occur because of election to another court, retirement, illness or death.