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Mihalopoulos: Judge’s campaign stunt raises extra alarms

Decommissioned firetruck with Bates campaign sign in front of the Markham courthouse steps last week. From Facebook.

Like referees, judges tend to become the story only when they’ve done something wrong.

For the judges of Cook County, it hasn’t been the worst of times — certainly not nearly as bad as the 1980s, when Operation Greylord brought down 15 crooked judges. Still, it’s far from happy days for at least some of the lawyers who enjoy coveted jobs in black robes.

Judge Richard Cooke resigned just five months after being handed a gavel, a spokesman for the state Supreme Court told me Friday.

Chief Judge Tim Evans’ office says Cooke refused to report to traffic court, so he was banished to what’s known in legal circles as “judge jail” — marriage court, in the basement of the county administration building.

OPINION

On Wednesday, another Cook County judge appeared before a federal judge. Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien pleaded not guilty to fraud charges.

But maybe the oddest and most public spectacle involving a judge took place earlier in the week outside the county’s branch courthouse in Markham.

A decommissioned, red fire truck pulled up right in front of the Markham courthouse steps on Monday morning.

The truck bore a giant campaign sign for Fredrick H. Bates — one of the judges handling cases in the Markham courthouse.

Fredrick H. Bates. LinkedIn Photo.
Fredrick H. Bates. LinkedIn Photo.

A photo of the bizarre sight was posted proudly on the campaign Facebook page for the Committee to Elect Fredrick Bates.

Everything is political in this town. There’s a fine line you must respect, though, between government and politics, especially when it comes to the judiciary.

Bates’ fire truck drove far over that line when it pulled up as close to his courtroom as it could physically go.

In a statement from a spokeswoman for his campaign, Bates acknowledged the mistake but put the blame on an unnamed, overzealous political supporter.

“The photo of the fire truck, which was taken when it passed near the courthouse for just a moment recently, was posted in error by an enthusiastic campaign volunteer,” according to a statement from Bates spokeswoman Joanna Klonsky.

“When the fire truck arrived near the courthouse, Judge Bates immediately and explicitly instructed the driver to exit the area and drive through the southern suburbs, which he did.”

According to the statement, the judge takes the separation of his duties and his campaign “extremely seriously,” and Bates warned his campaign staff against going “anywhere near any courthouse.”

The photo was removed from Facebook shortly after I called the spokesman for Evans, who declined to comment.

Facebook post.
Facebook post.

Bates, who’s up for election next year, has gone to great lengths to get his current, $194,001-a-year job on the bench.

The state Supreme Court appointed Bates to a countywide vacancy at the Daley Center in November 2015, only for him to lose the primary in March 2016, despite being slated by the Cook County Democratic Party.

In December, the state’s high court again appointed him to a Cook County judicial vacancy, this time for a subcircuit serving parts of the South Side and south suburbs.

When he first ran last year, Bates lived in a home outside that judicial district. He’s now registered to vote at an address in the district, on the South Side.

The strange case of the judge and the fire truck represents “using public property to be part of your campaign message,” says Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

It also serves as another reminder, she says, that Illinois should provide public financing of judicial races, as they do in New Mexico and West Virginia, to diminish the politicization of the judiciary.

“It can be tough to envision given our current budgetary climate, but would be a worthy reform for Illinois,” Brune says.

Short of that, it might be a nice change just to see some common sense from all the judges we count on to dispense justice wisely.