Editorial: Judge’s integrity lifted the courts

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In this Sept. 18, 2008 file photo, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald speaks of Abraham Lincoln during a dedication of the 16th U.S. President’s statue at the Fifth District Appelate Court in Mount Vernon, Ill. The former chief justice who stepped down in 2010 died Sunday Nov. 1 at his home. He was 74. (Steve Jahnke/The Southern, via AP, File)

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Allow us to interrupt a seemingly never-ending litany of complaints about our local criminal justice system to highlight an enduring bright spot: the career of former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald, who died Nov. 1 at age 74.

Fitzgerald was respected across the legal profession for his integrity, warmth and legal skills. He set a standard we hope others will strive to meet.

When Traffic Court was rocked in the 1980s by the Operation Greylord scandal in which 15 judges were convicted — many of whom worked in Traffic Court — along with an assortment of lawyers, police officers and court clerks, Fitzgerald was sent in to clean things up. He was widely credited for putting the court back on respectable footing.

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After he was named presiding judge of the Criminal Division in 1989, he created an evening narcotics court that allowed people freed on bond to keep their jobs, a reform that has evolved into the specialty courts of today.

Fitzgerald also stepped in during another major legal crisis, when a short parade of men sentenced by Illinois courts to die turned out to be innocent. As chairman of the Special Supreme Court Committee on Capital Cases, he helped steer through numerous reforms to guard against wrongful convictions. The committee’s work also help usher in the eventual abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois.

As chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Fitzgerald presided over the impeachment trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the Illinois Senate. Some legislators were worried about the proceedings becoming a circus, but Fitzgerald commanded enough respect to preserve a solemn and professional atmosphere.

State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride called Fitzgerald a “judge’s judge.” But he was more than that — a judge for all the people of the state.

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