THE WATCHDOGS: Why Cook County judge quit after just 142 days
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At the orientation for what he thought would be his dream job, Richard Cooke says he and other rookie Cook County judges were told they should appreciate their ascension into “career paradise” — and never question the boss.
“This job as a judge, we were told, came with unbelievable perks: high salary, incredible respect, five weeks’ paid vacation, basically unlimited, compensated sick days, minimal supervision, great health insurance and an outstanding pension,” Cooke says.
Cooke mounted an aggressive effort to land the job as a Cook County judge last year, showering campaign contributions on political decision-makers to help him. Yet he quit the $194,001-a-year job on April 25 — just 142 days after being sworn in.
Offering an unusual peek inside the workings and internal politics of the judiciary, Cooke says there’s more to his leaving than the way his brief tenure has been portrayed by Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans’ spokesman, who says Cooke defied orders assigning him to traffic court. And he complains about the “sick culture” of the Cook County judiciary.
“I am not the egotistical judge who was too good to preside in traffic court,” he says.
After Cooke was assigned to preside over marriage ceremonies for a few months, Evans called him before the Cook County Circuit Court’s executive committee to explain his “noncompliance with his judicial assignment” to traffic court. The committee referred Cooke’s case to the state agency that has authority over judicial conduct.
Though he immediately resigned, Cooke says he had valid reasons for not accepting his assignment to traffic court. And he says Evans and other top judges punished him unfairly.
He says he quit rather than bunker in at the marriage court while his case moved through the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board.
“I could have sat in the basement of the county building for years collecting over $200,000 a year in annual salary and benefits, all at the taxpayers’ expense, for doing close to nothing all day,” he says. “But I am unable to do that. That is not who I am as a person.”
Cooke, 50, is a Loyola University-educated lawyer. He also owns carwashes and gas stations in Chicago that have city, county and state contracts. That would have posed a “clear conflict of interest” when those government bodies had cases before him in traffic court, he says.
Because of those contracts, he says it would have been “a violation of the highest order of the ethical rules governing judicial conduct if I heard traffic court cases” and also if he presided over criminal cases.
Generally in such cases, Illinois Supreme Court rules say, “As soon as the judge can do so without serious financial detriment, the judge should divest himself or herself of investments and other financial interests that might require frequent disqualification.”
Cooke says he tried unsuccessfully to get his partners to buy him out but doesn’t think he needed to divest himself of his business interests because that would have caused him serious financial harm.
He also says his brief stint in traffic court proved difficult because he’s dyslexic.
“Using acronyms or reading handwritten cursive or sloppy printing is very difficult for me,” he says. “I had tremendous difficulty reading the handwritten tickets and charges that were the basis of why the defendant were in court.”
To run for judge, Cooke had moved from River Forest to an apartment he owns above his law office near the Logan Square CTA train station. That qualified him to run last year in the county’s Sixth Judicial Subcircuit.
He poured $660,000 into his campaign in the form of a loan. He gave more than $67,000 of that to other politicians, including the Democratic Party leaders who oversaw his slating as a judge candidate, records show. The checks went to four Democratic ward organizations in the subcircuit, House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democratic Party of Illinois and the 14th Ward Democratic organization headed by Ald. Edward Burke, who oversees judicial slating for the party.
State records show Cooke also paid $40,000 for campaign help to a company owned by state Rep. Luis Arroyo Sr., D-Chicago, and his wife.
Most of Cooke’s loan to his own campaign went unspent. He says the main reason he put so much into his campaign fund was to scare away potential rivals and that he did that on the advice of Democratic ward committeemen. Sure enough, he ended up running unopposed.
On Dec. 5, Cooke put on his black judicial robe and was sworn in for a six-year term with other new judges. His family was there for the ceremony. In his pocket, he carried Mass cards from the funerals of his grandmother and grandfather.
“Now, finally, my dream was being realized,” Cooke says.
But soon, he says, he saw that he and other judges were being “conditioned not to express opinions that differed from that of Chief Judge Evans.”
At a weeklong training program for new judges, he says, “Senior judges spoke openly that being a judge in Cook County was a career paradise. We were told that every judicial assignment is a good assignment and never, under any circumstances, question Chief Judge Evans.”
Cooke says his veteran colleagues also offered another tip: Don’t use the judges’ elevator at the Daley Center courthouse if you want to skip out of work early because reporters have been known to wait in the ground-level lobby outside the elevator doors.
“With a wink, during lunch, I was told that we were expected to work until 4 p.m. each day,” he says. “But I was also told how to sneak out of the Daley Center early through the concourse level.”
After orientation came the training stint in traffic court.
Cooke says he offered to go instead to even the least desirable civil courtroom. He also says he told his bosses that, alternatively, he’d go to a criminal courtroom but only if Evans put in writing that this couldn’t constitute a conflict of interest.
Cooke says he tried to meet with Evans about his issues with being in traffic court but his requests were ignored for weeks, until two aides to the chief judge offered to have someone sit next to him in court and read the ticket information aloud for him. Cooke says that would have been “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”
The chief judge then met with Cooke on Feb. 1. “He said he was going to assign me to a call where my dyslexia and ethical conflicts would not impact me or the administration of justice,” Cooke says.
Cooke was sent to marriage court — which he calls “judge jail” — and says his life insurance was cut off.
“It has dim lights, broken and dilapidated furniture, stained carpeting, dirty walls, sagging ceiling tiles and is infested with roaches,” he says. “The boredom was intolerable. I felt as if I was stealing taxpayer money by collecting a salary. I was sitting and doing very little actual work.”
In the past, others assigned to marriage court have included a judge who had sex in court chambers and another accused of lying on a mortgage application.
Every night, Cooke says he hung his robe in a garment bag in the closet of the marriage court office. Some mornings, he says, he found the robe stuffed into a garbage can.
He emailed Evans on April 24 to demand he reassign him. Within hours, he was summoned to a meeting the following day of the court system’s executive committee.
Cooke says Judge Tommy Brewer questioned him at that meeting about how, given his dyslexia, he had received good ratings from bar associations.
Brewer, recently promoted by Evans to presiding judge of the Markham branch courthouse, had been hit with liens by the IRS for more than $227,000 in unpaid personal income taxes, the Sun-Times reported in 2015.
“It was surreal to have one presiding judge, who is well-known to be dealing with multiple IRS liens for non-payment of taxes, leer at me and question my conduct,” Cooke says.
Brewer says there “was some discussion” about Cooke’s dyslexia but declined to say more, saying he had to check first with Evans.
Cooke says he told Evans and the others on the judges’ committee he’d quit if they referred his case to the Judicial Inquiry Board.
Evans’ spokesman says Cooke “is making statements that are nonsense” and “insults the collective intelligence and dedication of the nearly 400 men and women who serve in the judiciary.
“Chief Judge Evans promotes a culture of professionalism and works to accommodate judges with any concerns regarding their service,” says spokesman Pat Milhizer. “If Mr. Cooke believes that he was being mistreated and is right in his assertions, then why didn’t he allow the JIB to place him under oath and then make his case? Instead, he resigned.”
Cooke acknowledges that clout ensured he got elected. But he thinks he was dealt with harshly because some of his backers pushed behind the scenes last year to take away the chief judge’s role that Evans has held since 2001.
Now, Cooke says he is reopening his law office — and won’t ever run for judge again.
He has no regrets about quitting but wishes he got the chance to be a judge in a real courtroom. He says his brass judge’s nameplate, given to him after he took the oath of office, never was slid into a slot at the front of a courtroom. He still has it. It’s in the bubble wrap it came in.