Marriage Court: Cook County’s $180,000 judicial rubber room

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CHICAGO – Down in the basement of the Cook County building, Circuit Court Judge Beatriz Santiago spends her days performing marriage ceremonies.

She was taken off the bench in February, four days after the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board (JIB) filed a complaint accusing her of violating the Judicial Code of Conduct when she allegedly deceived her mortgage lender by making false statements about where she lived.

Under the two-step process for investigating and disciplining errant judges, the JIB’s complaint was filed with the Illinois Courts Commission, a seven-member panel that has the authority to reprimand, censure, suspend or even remove judges from office.

City Hall Marriage Court

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

People wait until marriage court opens in the lower level of City Hall.

But as Injustice Watch reported last week, the disciplinary process has been struggling with an increasing workload and a decreasing budget, often causing accusations of misconduct against judges years to resolve.

Santiago faces charges that developed after questions of her residency were published by a Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates joint examination in December, 2013. More than a year later, the JIB brought its complaint against her.  Santiago has filed a response to the complaint saying that she did not intend to mislead or deceive her lender.

The courts commission has not yet scheduled a hearing on the complaint.

Santiago’s reassignment was ordered on Feb. 10, when the Circuit Court Executive Committee – Chief Judge Evans, and the 17 presiding judges of court’s divisions — met and agreed she should be reassigned to non-courtroom duty while the JIB complaint is pending.

She continues to receive her salary, $188,076.27 this year, and to accrue service toward her pension. Months after the JIB complaint was filed, county records show, Santiago sold the house that is at the heart of the controversy. The impact of that sale on the case remains unclear.

Across the street from Santiago on the 13th floor of the Daley Center, Cook County Circuit Judge Gloria Chevere spends her day reviewing paperwork from indigent litigants seeking to waive the court fees associated with their cases.

The Cook County Circuit Court Executive Committee voted in November 2014, to order Chevere’s removal from her courtroom following a Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates report that she had jailed eight young men for contempt of court because she deemed their pants were too low.

Days later, the executive committee temporarily removed Chevere from her courtroom, based on its finding her orders may have resulted in “possible threat of injury to the public and to the orderly administration of justice.”

It was only the latest controversy involving Chevere since she was elected to the court from a subcircuit on the North Side of Chicago in 2006. Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates reported in 2013 that after she was elected, Chevere and her husband refinanced the mortgage on the house they long had owned outside the subcircuit. She and her husband both signed a refinance agreement that called the property their primary residence.

In 2012 the Chicago Council of Lawyers rated her not qualified for retention on the bench, citing negative comments from attorneys about her judicial performance, “primarily related to temperament and diligence.” The lawyers group noted that Fox News Chicago, working with the Better Government Association, had described her as “a judge who often left the courthouse early.”  Nevertheless, voters in 2012 retained her on the bench.

She remains on administrative duty, collecting her $188,076.27 salary.

The JIB has never brought charges against Chevere, and under state law, it is impossible to determine whether she is under investigation, or whether the board began or completed an investigation without public admonishment.

The Illinois Supreme Court has authorized local chief judges to temporarily reassign judges based on evidence of misconduct.

Downstate, McLean Circuit Court Judges Scott Drazewski and Rebecca Foley continue to preside over cases, despite JIB misconduct allegations pending against them. Drazewski is accused of ruling on cases in which Foley’s then-husband, Joseph Foley, was the attorney while Drazewski was having an affair with his wife.

Judge Foley is accused of violating the canons of ethics by not reporting Drazewski’s alleged misconduct.

According to news accounts, their affair was discovered in February, 2011, when Joseph Foley saw the two judges kissing as he looked through a window in the courthouse. He and Rebecca Foley have since divorced.

The JIB filed complaints against Rebecca Foley and Drazewski in July, 2014.

In October, the courts commission held a hearing at which the judges conceded their affair but contended it did not violate the judicial canons. Drazewski said it did not affect his handling of cases involving Joseph Foley, and therefore he was not required to disqualify himself.

The case remains pending.