Past blemishes no bar to seeking Cook County judicial seat

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On March 15, Democratic voters in Cook County will take the first step in a biannual ritual that displays democracy at its worst — nominating by popular vote candidates for 33 Circuit Court vacancies to be filled in next November’s general election.

Eighty-one Democratic candidates have filed nominating petitions for vacancies; 26 are vying for 11 open seats countywide and 55 for 22 open seats in the county’s 15 sub-circuits.

In all of the countywide contests and all but sub-circuits that stretch into the northern and western suburbs, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to election.

Yet if history is a guide, the principal attributes of the winners will not be their qualifications — their legal experience, education, and temperament — but rather the ethnicity of their names, their skin color, gender, campaign financing, and ballot position.

RELATED: Becoming a Circuit Judge in Cook County

RELATED: Becoming a Circuit Judge in Cook County

Most voters will walk into the polling booths knowing nothing about the candidates whom they are asked to choose between, whether they excelled as lawyers or had blemishes. “In the history of American democracy, one of the very worst innovations of all time is electing judges,” said Daniel Tokaji, a professor at Ohio State University who studies election law and voting rights.

Twelve of the candidates chose to skip the evaluation process established by 11 bar associations, according to Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, thus assuring they will be negatively rated by the various bar associations in appraisals to be released in coming days. Several have been sued in the past involving unpaid debts or neglect of clients, Cook County court records show.

Five of the candidates have been disciplined by the state Supreme Court, state records show. Some of those actions happened years ago, and the lawyers since went on to resurrect their careers; but such sanctions are rare, befalling fewer than one in every 100 lawyers who practice in Illinois.

— In October, 2014, James DiChristofano was suspended from practicing law for 30 days based on his failure to pay a fellow lawyer roughly $3,000 from a client for whom they both had worked. Jeffrey Blumenthal filed the complaint with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) after several unsuccessful efforts to reach DiChristofano about the payment Blumenthal was owed for his help on a complicated land transaction.

Shortly after filing his complaint, Blumenthal said, DiChristofano sent him the check. While Blumenthal now downplays the incident, the ARDC review board wrote in recommending the suspension that DiChristofano had deposited the fees earmarked for Blumenthal into his personal account and then used some of that money to pay business expenses. The review board said it did not find evidence that DiChristofano acted with dishonest motive, but wrote disapprovingly of his refusal to acknowledge that he acted badly. DiChristofano  failed to return telephone calls from Injustice Watch.

— Gregory LaPapa received a year-long suspension in 2001, based on evidence that he had helped himself to thousands of dollars that was supposed to be paid to clients for settlement of their cases.

In one case, the ARDC report states, LaPapa wrote a $4,925 check to a couple whose case had settled, but then quickly stopped payment on the check and used more than $4,700 of the money for himself.   When the couple attempted to cash the check, it bounced.

In the other case, a judge had ordered LaPapa to pay a total $9,895 dollars to the family of an injured boy, and to pay off bills the family had incurred. But LaPapa, according to the ARDC report, spent all but $2,433 on himself, and then tried to hide that from the judge by producing money orders from a currency exchange that LaPapa said were used to pay off the bills. After the hearing, LaPapa went back to the currency exchange and returned the money orders without ever paying the bills, according to the ARDC report.

“I regret doing it,” LaPapa told Injustice Watch. “I took the year, I like to believe something good can come out of it.” LaPapa said he spent the year studying criminal law.

— Travis Richardson, who is running for a sub-circuit seat in south suburban Cook County, received a Supreme Court censure in 2008 over his handling of almost $75,000 that Ohio state troopers had confiscated from the car of a driver who was pulled over for speeding.

The driver hired Richardson to recover the money, but there was no written agreement between the attorney and his client over how much money Richardson would be entitled to receive. Richardson filed the paperwork to contest the government’s seizure. But, according to the ARDC report, Richardson was required to do nothing more before the U.S. attorney’s office notified him that it concluded the seizure was improper. The lawyer sent his client a form proposing he would keep 35 percent of the proceeds.

At that point the client fired Richardson, the ARDC report states; but when the lawyer subsequently received a check from the government for the withheld money, he deducted more than $23,000 as his fee before returning the rest of the money to his client. When the ARDC began investigating, Richardson returned $14,000 of the money he had withheld.

In recommending a censure, the ARDC noted that Richardson was active in bar association activities; had many supporters among lawyers who would testify to his honesty and veracity; and that he mitigated the damage by returning much of the disputed fee. It was, the ARDC concluded, an “isolated instance of overreaching,” though one that brought the “legal profession into disrepute.”

Richardson did return calls for comment.

— Leonard Murray, who has been an associate judge since 2007, is running for a subcircuit seat on Chicago’s South Side. Before he was chosen by the Circuit Court judges as an associate judge, the Chicago Council of Lawyers found Murray not qualified then because the Supreme Court had suspended him for three months in 1999 over his neglect in the cases of seven different clients over a seven-year period.
The Supreme Court adopted the ARDC finding that Murray be suspended for 15 months for the cases of neglect, but the final year of that punishment was stayed and he was permitted to return to practice on probation. The ARDC noted factors that called for mitigation: Murray had done extensive work for poor defendants, had done extensive public service on behalf of the profession; and, for at least two of the seven cases called into question, that neglect was caused in part by the impact of the murder of a sister.

Murray did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Among the clients he neglected was Aletha Terrell, whose case Murray had taken on at no cost after she was dismissed from a now-defunct Chicago technical college. Murray kept assuring her he expected to soon be in court on her behalf, but never even filed a lawsuit on her behalf, according to the ARDC report.

“Mr. Murray turned around and treated me just as bad,” Terrell said, comparing him to the school she was ejected from. “And he’s got the nerve to be out there, trying to be involved with people.”

— William Wojcik, who is running for a countywide judicial seat, was cited for letting cases fall through the cracks after the ARDC concluded that he had mishandled three cases of clients in the 1980s. The ARDC found that Wojcik had ignored calls from one client who had paid for his services, and neglected two other legal cases of his clients.

Wojcik testified at the time that in addition to moving offices and being short on staff and supplies, he was using cocaine and alcohol, according to court documents. Since then, Wojcik testified, he got help for his vices and attended addiction meetings.

The Supreme Court determined that a censure was sufficient for Wojcik’s actions.

“In my case, it did not affect my ability to practice law,” Wojcik told Injustice Watch. “Have we put it behind us? Yes, [it] being over 20 years old, absolutely. It’s ancient history.” Wojcik said he has since successfully argued cases in the Illinois Supreme Court and that several bar groups deemed him qualified for a judicial seat after disclosing his previous ARDC sanction.

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