With little fanfare, Shakman era ends as Cook County clerk’s office is released from court oversight of hiring

Lawyer Michael Shakman filed suit 54 years ago to end the practice of political patronage in hiring by state, county and local governments throughout Illinois.

SHARE With little fanfare, Shakman era ends as Cook County clerk’s office is released from court oversight of hiring
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough. In her role as county recorder and in her tenure as clerk, Yarbrough has faced frequent allegations of patronage hiring.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times(file)

At a hearing that lasted barely 10 minutes, a federal judge released Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough from court oversight of hiring and promotions in her office, ending a 54-year-old lawsuit that led to a sea change in Illinois politics and largely ended patronage hiring.

The order was lifted by U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang, the sixth judge to preside over the lawsuit filed in 1969 by Michael Shakman, a reform-minded Democrat who claimed the army of patronage workers holding government jobs thwarted his bid to become a delegate to a constitutional convention.

Rahm Emanuel Michael L. Shakman

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and attorney Michael L. Shakman, right, are seen in 2014 leaving the Dirksen Federal Building. Shakman filed suit in 1969 alleging that patronage workers in government jobs blocked his bid to become a delegate to the state constitutional convention.

Sun-Times Media

The judge acknowledged that Yarbrough’s office had not been a role model for reformed hiring practices, but he noted that an appeals court ruling last summer lowered the bar for proving politics had been eliminated from a government agency’s personnel practices.

By those new standards, Yarbrough’s office was due to be released from the mandates of the so-called Shakman Decree.

“This does end the [Shakman] case,” the judge said. “It should be exceedingly rare that a case is older than the presiding judge.” Chang is 52.

In an era of increasing political polarization, Chang noted that “the last thing we need is more politics in public employment.

“This case has served its purpose, and it is closed,” Chang said, noting that individual employees could still sue government employers for violating fair hiring standards that were put in place because Shakman litigation. “The Northern District remains open as it is needed.”

Shakman was not present in the courtroom for the final hearing in a case that carried his name across decades. His attorney, Brian Hays, said the clerk’s office has drafted equitable hiring policies, trained staff and gone without violations since the court appointed a monitor to watch over hiring at the clerk’s office in 2020.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruling in favor of Gov. J.B. Pritzker found the requirements for compliance imposed by the Shakman case against the state were too strict. Court oversight of hiring run by the governor’s office was lifted last August.

“The clerk has ticked off the boxes of what we asked her to do,” Hays said. “As the 7th Circuit held, perfection is not the standard.”

Yarbrough sat silently beside attorneys for her office during the hearing, and left the Dirksen Federal Courthouse without speaking to reporters. In a statement issued after the hearing, she said her office had spent $3 million on compliance, including fees paid to lawyers for both sides and the compliance monitor, since 2020.

“We are pleased that the court has recognized our commitment to fair and equitable hiring and employment policies,” Yarbrough said in the statement. “The termination of this consent decree is going to save taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and enable us to focus fully on ensuring effective hiring standards, building continued efficiencies across our office, and providing the best possible service to the residents of Cook County.”

In her previous role as county recorder and for much of her tenure as clerk, Yarbrough has faced frequent allegations of patronage hiring. The clerk’s office, with 350 full-time employees, maintains records like birth certificates and marriage licenses, and oversees suburban elections.

The county inspector general in 2014 blasted a series of questionable hires in the recorder’s office, a list that included Yarbrough’s niece, who held a job with a $114,000 annual salary.

Less than a year after Yarbrough became clerk in 2018, Shakman filed suit against the office for similar hiring irregularities. In reports to the court, a monitor said that Yarbrough and her staff were mostly uncooperative, stalled frequently when asked to make reforms, and violated or ignored policies put in place to reform hiring.

The skepticism from good government activists on Yarbrough’s emergence from the decree was a contrast with 2011, when Shakman himself praised Sheriff Tom Dart for “leadership and commitment from the top” in making changes.

In 2014, Shakman signed off on releasing the city of Chicago from a compliance monitor appointed by a federal judge in 2005, after multiple city officials and figures with ties to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley were caught up in a scandal involving city trucking contracts. This led to multiple federal indictments.

Chang noted that though the Shakman case had ended, it had established hiring practices across city, county and state government that should make hiring more transparent and merit-based, and that individual employees could still file lawsuits on their own. After the hearing, Hays said the burden of proof to show political bias in government hiring in such a civil lawsuit would be lower than would be required to have triggered oversight under Shakman.

Hays, who began his role litigating the Shakman case as a first-year law firm associate nearly 25 years ago, said the case had fundamentally changed the patronage practices that were in place when Mayor Richard J. Daley held near-absolute power over the state Democratic Party thanks to his unfettered power to fill tens of thousands of taxpayer-funded jobs with political hires.

Mayor Richard J. Daley Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1968

The changes brought in public employee hiring by Shakman have fundamentally changed the patronage practices in place when former Mayor Richard J. Daley — pictured at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 —held near absolute power over the state Democratic Party.

Associated Press

“We’ve come a long way,” Hays said in the courthouse lobby after the hearing. “We’ve achieved great results in terms of opening up government positions to the general public to apply for jobs and to have a fair shake, even if it’s not always been a perfect decisionmaking process.”

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