Having been born into a politically well-connected Democratic family, Cook County Circuit Judge Michael J. Howlett Jr. probably could have pretty much coasted by in life. Instead, he became a respected lawyer who held a variety of jobs that molded public policy and left the world a better place, friends said, from going after pedophile priests to investigating U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Tex., who resigned from office in a scandal involving his financial dealings.
Mr. Howlett, 65, died Sunday of prostate cancer at his Winnetka home. He was the son of Michael J. Howlett Sr., who served as Illinois’ secretary of state and state auditor.
In 1986, Michael Howlett Jr. ran for lieutenant governor as the running mate of Adlai E. Stevenson III after a bizarre turn of events. In the Democratic primary, Mark J. Fairchild, an obscure follower of extremist Lyndon LaRouche, defeated Stevenson’s choice as his running mate, state Sen. George E. Sangmeister, D-Mokena. Stevenson and Mr. Howlett then ran as third-party candidates but lost to the slate headed by Gov. James Thompson, just as Mr. Howlett’s father had.
Mr. Howlett grew up in South Shore in St. Philip Neri parish. His maternal grandfather was Fourth Ward Ald. Joe Geary, a powerful civil service commissioner who controlled police and fire department hiring. Mr. Howlett attended Mendel Catholic High School. With his father holding state office, he finished high school in Springfield at Sacred Heart-Griffin, then headed to St. John’s University in Minnesota and briefly attended the Niles campus of Mundelein Seminary.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about his high school sweetheart, Kathleen Fitzgerald, whom he’d met at a Mount Carmel social. So he left the seminary, finished college at St. John’s and attended law school at the University of Notre Dame — and married Kathleen in 1970.
“His first job out of law school was working for me as a law clerk for two years,” said Judge William J. Bauer of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “He was one of the best judges that ever sat on the bench. He was intelligent, compassionate, kind, and he was never so sure of himself that he didn’t listen. He did a lot of good.”
Mr. Howlett’s three daughters and his wife, all lawyers, also clerked for Bauer.
Mr. Howlett worked as an assistant U.S. attorney but left to help with his father’s 1976 challenge to Thompson.
He then worked in private law practice, including at a South Bend, Ind., firm that represented the University of Notre Dame. He went on to work as a prosecutor in St Joseph County, Ind., and at law firms including Phelan, Pope & John. He became a visiting professor at Loyola University’s law school and counsel to Dick Devine, then the Cook County state’s attorney. He was a liaison to the Archdiocese of Chicago on cases involving sexual abuse by priests.
In 1992, he ran for the Illinois Supreme Court but lost. He was appointed a Cook County judge in 2005.
“I think sometimes people that just got to know Mike thought of him on the political side because he was so good with people, but he really was an excellent lawyer, too,” Devine said.
In 1988, the House Ethics Committee hired him and attorneys Richard J. Phelan and Bill Kunkel to probe the Wright case. A few months after they issued their report, Wright resigned from Congress.
“Mike Howlett was a wonderful person and an excellent judge who put justice before anything else,” said Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Tim Evans. “The Illinois Judges Association earlier this month honored him with the Distinguished Service Award for his honorable career on the bench, and many of his colleagues turned out to cheer him on.”
“Mike inspired all of us here in the court by his staunch dedication to demonstrating the three C’s to all litigants and colleagues: courtesy, compassion and competency.”
Mr. Howlett wrote a poem about avoiding judicial cynicism and maintaining integrity that was published in Commonweal magazine. It had an e.e. cummings flavor and ended with, “From the chill of nonchalance, safeguard my soul.”
Mr. Howlett also taught at John Marshall Law School and the University of Chicago law school. He was on the board of the American Refugee Committee and was president of the Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which helps attorneys and also intervenes with them on addiction issues.
He is survived by his wife; daughters Melissa, an assistant state’s attorney, Beth, a staff attorney in the Lake County court system, and Catherine, who is in private practice; his mother, Helen Howlett; sisters Catherine Childress, Mary Christine Howlett and Helen Cashman; brothers Robert and Edward; and three grandchildren. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Donnellan Family Funeral home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, with a funeral mass at 10 a.m. Thursday at Saints Faith, Hope & Charity Church, 191 Linden St., Winnetka.