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Thomas Fitzgerald, former Illinois Supreme Court chief justice, dead at 74

Thomas Fitzgerald helped restore public confidence after one of Illinois’ worst legal scandals and presided over the only impeachment trial for a governor in state history.

He was dubbed a “model for integrity” — and the cleanup man.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who rose in the ranks from Cook County prosecutor to Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice, died Sunday at the age of 74.

“We won’t see his kind often again,” said former Gov. Jim Thompson. “ I think that’s fair to say. There are a lot of fine judges out there, but he was a breed apart.

“He was better than the best.”

The son of a judge, Mr. Fitzgerald went from prosecuting murder cases at 26th and California in Chicago, all the way to overseeing the historic impeachment trial that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009.

Decades earlier, Mr. Fitzgerald was named supervising judge of Cook County’s traffic division when public faith in the court system was rocked by the Greylord scandal — a massive FBI investigation into judicial corruption that resulted in 15 judges being convicted. Lawyers, police officers and court clerks were also among the probe’s 50 convictions.

And Mr. Fitzgerald received widespread support — defense attorneys and prosecutors, alike — in his bid for the Illinois Supreme Court, which saw loyal machine Democrats, the city’s top bar groups and at least one leading Republican agree he was the best candidate for the job.

Mr. Fitzgerald retired in 2010 after serving 35 years on the bench, as he struggled with Parkinson’s disease. Even in his retirement announcement, Fitzgerald showed humility, saying he “didn’t want to do anything to hurt the Court or the people it serves.”

The Illinois Supreme Court announced Fitzgerald’s death on Tuesday, calling him a “model for integrity.”

“If you want to write a profile of what qualities a judge should have, he had all of them,” said Nick Motherway, a trial attorney and close friend. “He will be greatly missed.”

Fitzgerald was born in 1941 on the South Side. He graduated from Loyola University Chicago before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. After serving a tour of duty, he graduated with honors from the John Marshall Law School.

After serving as a prosecutor for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, he was elected to the Circuit Court bench in 1976, becoming the youngest elected circuit judge in Cook County. Fitzgerald served as a trial judge from 1976 to 1987, when he was assigned supervising judge of Traffic Court following the Greylord scandal.

He returned to the Criminal Division as presiding judge in 1989 and created an evening Narcotics Court to help drug addicts receive treatment and to relieve jail overcrowding.

In 2000, Justice Fitzgerald was elected to the Supreme Court for the First Judicial District, and in 2008, was unanimously chosen by his colleagues to be Chief Justice.

Thompson, a Republican, served as the chairman of Fitzgerald’s Illinois Supreme Court campaign.

“I wouldn’t have accepted a position like that unless Tom Fitzgerald had been an incredibly special person, which he was. He was a judge that was known by everybody in the community as fair honorable, learned, Supreme Court material, and so it was a very easy task to help him and to spread the word of his good work,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he was never disappointed.

“His decisions were sound. They were backed by precedent. He didn’t let his personal feelings ever enter a case. And he was the kind of person you’d look up to in the practice of law,” Thompson said

Other supporters included Thomas Hynes, former Cook County assessor and head of the 19th Ward Democratic organization, James Montgomery, Mayor Harold Washington’s top attorney and the late Philip H. Corboy Sr., a top personal injury attorney who served as Mr. Fitzgerald’s finance committee chairman.

Mr. Fitzgerald faced an expensive campaign against Appellate Judge Morton Zwick, who raised more than $400,000 in his bid for the Illinois Supreme Court.

An ad that ran in 2000 accused Mr. Fitzgerald of being the “presiding judge of a broken system” that resulted in Gov. George Ryan’s statewide moratorium on executions. But none of the eight exonerated Cook County inmates was convicted in trials presided over by Mr. Fitzgerald.

Voters rejected the ads, putting Zwick dead last in the polls for the primary. Mr. Fitzgerald faced no Republican opponent in his November election.

Chief Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita B. Garman knew Mr. Fitzgerald for nearly 30 years: “Over the many years, he never changed. He was a warm and caring person, and even when on the bench, his demeanor revealed his genuine concern about the people who appeared before him,” Garman said in a statement.

Justice Mary Jane Theis, who succeeded Mr. Fitzgerald in 2010, said the Greylord Scandal deeply affected Mr. Fitzgerald and “he devoted his extraordinary judicial career to healing that grave breach of trust.” Mr. Fitzgerald was credited with cleaning up the scandal and instituting a number of reforms.

“Justice Thomas Fitzgerald often said the moral authority of the Courts is based on the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the judiciary,” Theis said in a statement.

“Just before his retirement Justice Fitzgerald presided over the impeachment trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It was fitting that in a time of crisis in the State of Illinois, he was the very public face of integrity, and his dignity and wisdom provided confidence in the proceeding.”

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Scully (L) testifies as Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald presides during the impeachment trial for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich January 26, 2009 at the Illinois State Senate Chamber in Springfield, Illinois. (File Photo by Whitney Curtis /Getty Images)

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Scully (L) testifies as Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald presides during the impeachment trial for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich January 26, 2009 at the Illinois State Senate Chamber in Springfield, Illinois. (File Photo by Whitney Curtis /Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke called Mr. Fitzgerald “an outstanding legal professional and jurist, as well as a wonderful friend.”

Motherway began his career in law with Mr. Fitzgerald at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse. The two remained close even in Mr. Fitzgerald’s retirement.

“He was highly respected, very effective, aggressive but fair. He tried a lot of important cases, a lot of murder cases, and he was held in high regard,” Motherway said of Mr. Fitzgerald’s days as a Cook County prosecutor.

The two shared season tickets for the Chicago White Sox and were both “rabid Sox fans,” Motherway said.

Their fandom inspired them to create the Nellie Fox Society, which hosted luncheons in hopes of raising support to get the legendary second baseman into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

They’d like to think their efforts worked. Fox was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.

“We had a good time in our campaign to get Nellie in the Hall of Fame, and eventually it happened,” Motherway said. “Tom got a lot of credit for that. It was just a fun thing to do.”

Motherway said Mr. Fitzgerald wasn’t alone in his final months and days.

“I saw him on a regular basis until the very end. I was not alone. Many others did the same. We could see his decline, and his passing was not a surprise,” Motherway said. “It’s a big loss to a lot of people.”

Mr. Fitzgerald is survived by his wife Gayle; five children, Maura O’Daniel, Kathryn Chang, Jean Fendick, Thomas A. Fitzgerald, Ann Butler; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday at Hallowell & James Funeral Home, 1025 W. 55th St. in Countryside.

Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Xavier Church, 125 N. Spring Ave. in La Grange.

 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.., in 2008.  (Steve Jahnke/The Southern, via AP, File)

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.., in 2008. (Steve Jahnke/The Southern, via AP, File)