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)

Unlike Burke and Theis, though, Freeman does not have a screening committee to help him in selecting lawyers.

Tybor said Cocozza's appointment without any kind of screening was unusual.

"Justice Freeman makes his recommendations after candidates go through the evaluation processes of the bar associations, except in rare cases when the talents and abilities of the person are well-known to him and the court," Tybor said.

Competition for a spot on the bench is fierce. In September 2011, for instance, nearly 240 lawyers were on a waiting list for just six openings.

Theis in February formed a 14-member committee that is co-chaired by a retired federal judge to help her in selecting judges. The committee will screen applicants after they have been evaluated by various bar associations, then will forward its recommendations to her.

Tybor said Theis, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2010 and elected last November, previously had submitted the names of potential judges to local bar associations for evaluation.

Herbert Kritzer, a University of Minnesota Law School professor, said having judges go before the voters came about to reduce the control of officials who had appointment power. In Illinois, he said, appointing judges is a "partisan political process."

"Is it unusual that those who have appointment power use it to reward people who have been political supporters or who have worked for them? The answer is no," Kritzer said.

Freeman, elected to the Supreme Court in 1990, had spent the early part of his career as a prosecutor and as a lawyer to the Illinois State Board of Elections, according to his court biography. He was a general practitioner for about 15 years before being elected to the Circuit Court in 1976, and his career highlights include swearing in Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.

Freeman's tenure on the court has not been without controversy.

Most notable was the 2000 criminal case against then-Circuit Court Judge George J.W. Smith, appointed on Freeman's recommendation. The FBI investigated whether Smith paid $30,000 to a former politician to arrange for Smith's appointment.

Smith pleaded guilty to evading federal cash-reporting requirements but has never said whether he used the money to buy his judgeship. A federal judge found Smith's ex-wife's claim that he bought the judgeship to be credible and sent him to prison.

FBI agents interviewed Freeman as part of their investigation. He was not accused of any wrongdoing.

Another controversy involved lawyer Sheldon Harris, whom Freeman had recommended for a judgeship in 2000. Harris drew the attention of the FBI after his sons made $50,000 in political donations to Democrat Lisa Madigan during her successful run for attorney general, while he received special campaign help from her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The FBI's inquiry did not lead to any charges.

Harris, who was seeking election to a full term after his appointment, lost in 2002.

Still, he remains a Supreme Court favorite. He has been reappointed repeatedly to the bench, including to a position in January on the Appellate Court.

In stories in 2011 and 2012, the Tribune documented the Supreme Court's practice of keeping politically connected judges on the Cook County bench after they were rejected at the polls by voters.

According to the Tribune's analysis, those who benefited the most were active Democrats. One had given more than $20,000 to the county Democratic Party, and others had ties to powerful Chicago Democrats, including to Michael Madigan and Ald. Edward Burke, the husband of Justice Burke.

Those judicial candidates weren't the only Democrats elevated to the Circuit Court. The Supreme Court last year reappointed three judges who had dropped out of judicial races to make room for the party's favored candidates.

And in October 2011, the Tribune reported that the court appointed Cynthia Cobbs — another former Freeman law clerk — to fill a Cook County vacancy although she lived in Will County.

Legal experts said the court's appointment of Cobbs was at odds with the state's constitution over residency requirements. Her term was to expire in December.

On Nov. 26, the court reappointed Cobbs to the bench, and her term now expires in December 2014.

Tybor said recently, "The judge wants you to know she now lives in Cook County."