Mihalopoulos: Without clout, judge says no appeal in boring job

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Retiring Judge Sheryl Pethers. Photo courtesy of Windy City Times.

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Many of us — and probably all lawyers — fantasize about being elevated to the bench, wearing the black robes, getting called “your honor” and imparting our tough but wise decisions to cowering plaintiffs, defendants and counsel.

But it ain’t all that, if we’re to believe veteran Cook County Circuit Judge Sheryl Pethers.

Unless you’ve got the clout to get a prestigious courtroom assignment, Pethers says, being a judge in this county is “demoralizing” and often leaves you “bored out of your mind.”


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In an email last month titled “Hanging Up the Robe,” Pethers announced her plan to retire at the end of her term in December and said she’ll leave the $187,000-a-year job with few regrets.

The email reads a bit like a law-and-order version of chef Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” with accusations that unnamed colleagues in the Cook County judiciary are often mailing it in.

Sure, there are “real upsides” to being a judge here, Pethers says.

“Good pay, great benefits, lots of vacation,” wrote Pethers, 58.

She says she also enjoyed working with some of her fellow judges, resolving disputes and explaining the legal system to non-lawyers who file cases without an attorney.

But Pethers found it particularly depressing that “there are judges who regularly don’t even come to work, but get to choose their courtrooms,” according to the email sent to friends and colleagues.

Pethers came to realize she never had a shot at presiding over a courtroom in the Law Division. She worked almost her entire career as an attorney in the Law Division and aspired to sit in judgment there, she says.

“For years, I have watched folks elected long after me get assignments I wanted,” says Pethers, who became the county’s first openly lesbian judge when she was elected in 2004. “Some of them, although not on the bench as long as me, were at least as qualified for the positions. Others, not so much.”

Pethers clearly blames her failure to enjoy upward career mobility on a lack of political influence: “Being ‘nobody who nobody sent’ doesn’t cut it. And because of that, qualification and experience don’t either.”

She doesn’t name any of the allegedly better-clouted colleagues who were promoted unfairly over her. But Pethers put the blame for the situation squarely on longtime Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

“He never once returned my calls,” Pethers says. “When I complained a bit about that, his assistant told me to write him and tell him what assignment I would like, and then she’d set up a meeting. I wrote. Never heard a word. Called to set up a meeting. Never got a call back.”

Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in June. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in June. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

In a statement Tuesday, Evans — who’s facing a rare challenge to his own job, from alderman-turned-judge Thomas Allen — said Pethers expressed interest in a Law Division vacancy in 2011 but her supervisor later “indicated she was no longer interested.”

Evans also said he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn of Pethers’ views of her time on the bench.

“I believe there is always honor and gratification in service as a judge,” he said. “No matter how minor or major a case may seem to be, each litigant regards his or her case as the most important thing in the world and each deserves to be treated accordingly.”

His statement did not address Pethers’ allegation about judges playing hooky.

Pethers did not return calls seeking comment.

Her email blast, though, vividly told what it’s like to lord over a local legal backwater.

What little challenging work she’s been given, Pethers writes, “takes all of about 2-3 hours a day” and is on her docket only every other week.

The rest apparently is a distasteful snore: “I have spent 12 years throwing people out of their homes in evictions, placing judgments against poor people who cannot pay their credit card and student loan debts and dealing with lousy insurance companies in fender-bender car accident cases. And the occasional breach of contract, slip and fall or dog bite.”

Now, she sees she had been “so naïve” when striving for a judgeship.

“A well-known ‘mover and shaker’ told me when I was campaigning that, if I thought an election was political, ‘Wait until you’re a judge — there’s no place in Chicago more political than that,’” Pethers says. “I didn’t understand that then, but I sure do now.”

Hanging Up the Robe

Statement From Chief Judge Timothy C

Pethers Docs (2)

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