Back in 2006 when I wrote that our justice system desperately needs a social service arm, I had no idea that role would be thrust upon me – at least in Kane County. My long-time readers will recall that column came in response to Chicago federal Judge Joan Lefko’s husband and father being murdered in their home by a disgruntled plaintiff.
The truth is, there are so many desperate plaintiffs and defendants out there who so firmly believe they’ve been screwed by the system that I don’t understand why it hasn’t been done. I know that kind of thing costs money, but a social service unit would correctly cut down on frivolous lawsuits, formal complaints, and a lot of wasted judicial and prosecutor time.
Sometimes, all it takes is one willing to ear to bring someone back from the edge of the abyss.
How do I know this? Because you all keep coming to me! The numbers add up to well over one hundred people since 2017 and a record setting ten in the last two weeks. I don’t mind lending an ear and offering reasonable advice, especially to those willing to listen, but with a rapidly increasing number of complaints, I simply can’t keep up with it anymore.
So, my intent here is to explain some very basic justice system realities and set some ground rules to make my “family law” practice a bit more manageable. So, let’s get started:
1. The justice system is not out to get you
First, you’re not nearly that important. And second, there’s vast difference between dysfunction and corruption. Of the dozens of stories I’ve heard, not a single one of them involved outright corruption.
To further put this in perspective, when my pickup truck was firebombed on my driveway in 2016, my former running friend, Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon, stuck me with a prosecutor with whom I almost came to blows. And that prosecutor was later fired for sexually harassing an inordinate number of female prosecutors.
Then the adult offender got just 15 days in jail for doing his best to kill my family. If that dysfunction can descend upon a semi-well-known journalist, what makes you think you’re immune?
2. They’re not good enough to pull off a conspiracy
With rare exception, no one in that Peck Road and Rt. 38 building is smart enough to concoct a conspiracy – especially the judges. And they wouldn’t be able to keep their mouths shut if they did. There is very little that goes on at the Judicial Center that I don’t hear about.
Not only that, but it’s not in your attorney’s best interest to conspire against you because they could be disbarred, they have far better things to do, and they really like getting paid. So, if you’re going to come at me with another conspiracy theory, I’m going to abruptly end the conversation.
3. The people in that building generally loathe each other
I’ve said it over and over again. The Kane County Judicial Center is one of the most incestuous propositions on the planet. Yes! They all know each other, but with some exceptions, judges hate the attorneys, the attorneys hate the judges, and everyone hates the prosecutors. And if they can’t stand each other, how the heck are they possibly going to team up against you? If they did, they’d rat each other out in a heartbeat.
4. Prosecutors are overworked and underpaid
It’s human nature to believe your case is the all-important one, but whether you’re a crime victim or a defendant, you’re just one of hundreds of files that cross a prosecutor’s desk every year. Do prosecutors screw up. Yes they do! But the more likely answer is they can’t devote an inordinate amount of time to one case and if you don’t understand that going in, your life will turn into a complete nightmare.
5. If three or more attorneys have “fired” you, it’s you!
Attorneys are in it to get clients and make money. It’s that simple. So, if they drop you, or if no attorney will take your case, it’s what we call a “fence post over the head hint.” If that’s the case with your case, please don’t come to me with a self-inflicted problem.
6. I will not write about a divorce
No self-respecting journalist would ever write about or take sides in a family law case. First, it’s not news, and second, the fact that you loathe your ex is not a universal truth. The only time I’ll write about a judge, a prosecutor, or an attorney is when there’s repeated hard evidence that demands it.
7. I choose my friends wisely
If you approach me with a problem, odds are I’ll have some sort of relationship with one or more of the people involved. Since I choose my friends wisely, I will listen to your complaint, but I’m far more likely to believe my own experience than someone I just met. That doesn’t mean I’ll cut you off and that my friends can’t screw up, but it also doesn’t mean that I’m part of the “conspiracy.” I don’t have the time or inclination for that, either.
8. There are formal avenues to file a complaint
If you believe a judge has violated their code of conduct, file a complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Board. If you think a prosecutor or attorney has behaved inappropriately, file a complaint with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. I can tell you from experience the ARDC takes evidence-based complaints VERY seriously.
But if all you want to do is go on a rant about a judge, a prosecutor, or an attorney, please don’t waste their or my time.
9. I may not be able to solve your problem, but I can point you in the right direction.
Many folks’ frustration with the justice system is they don’t understand it and they don’t begin to understand the players. I may not have the capacity to solve your problem, but I can point you in the right direction, even if it’s simply referring a decent attorney.
The perfect example of what I speak is last week’s three-part series on sexual harassment in sixth grade. That family didn’t understand the system had actually worked in their favor because the “system” doesn’t communicate very well.
That’s another reason to create a justice system social service adjunct.
The mother said my efforts finally brought closure to their daughter’s plight and I was happy to help.
I love talking to people who, right off the bat say, “Jeff, I know I’m in it waist deep, so how do I get out of it? Put more simply, I can only help those willing to look forward. Righting a perceived injustice? That’s a lot more difficult and it’s rarely a news story.
I’m not saying I’ll no longer respond to your Judicial Center entreaties, it’s just that it was time to set some ground rules to preserve my very limited sanity.
But before we move on, I want to address the judges, prosecutors, and the attorneys that populate that building directly. The number of desperate people coming to me with real and perceived problems is increasing every month. And the level of desperation is also on the rise.
Trust me, if I thought any of these individuals would cross the line, journalist-source privilege be damned, I wouldn’t hesitate to call the Sheriff. A great part of the reason I listen to each and every one of these sad tales is an effort to prevent violence.
But in this era of mass shootings, I would ask the Judicial Center players to more carefully consider their words and actions because those words and actions can have unintended consequences. Judges can be arrogant and aloof, prosecutors can forget the defendant is a human being, and there are limits to a “zealous” defense.
I know these are tough jobs. But before you say or do something that’s utterly unnecessary, please first consider if it will improve the situation, or make it much worse. And if it will make it worse, then please let it go.
I could really use a break!