Amid push to unseat some Cook County judges, others stand out as exceptional

This article is published in collaboration with the Chicago Sun-Times

When Cook County Circuit Judge Grace G. Dickler was named presiding judge of the Domestic Relations Division in 2011, couples who hadn’t been married to each other and were now fighting over custody issues were assigned to cramped courtrooms in the basement of the Daley Center.

They were far less welcoming quarters than the courtrooms where the cases of once-married couples were heard.

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To Dickler, that left “a perception that children of nonmarried parents were treated worse than children of married parents” and that people of color were disproportionately at a disadvange in these proceedings. Dickler spent the next five years heading a committee to integrate the two courts, a job finally completed in February 2017.

That was among the reforms Dickler has helped institute since taking over the courts’ Domestic Relations Division. Others include creating a special domestic relations call for prisoners and establishing an online parenting class.

Illinois State Bar Association

Circuit Judge Grace Dickler, winning award in 2014

These are among the reasons Dickler is held in high regard. The Chicago Council of Lawyers rates her as “highly qualified,” citing her “outstanding ability.” The lawyers group also calls her “exceptionally knowledgeable” and praises her “good demeanor” and her “unbiased” treatment of the parties before her.

In a year in which a handful of Cook County judges on the November ballot are trying to hold onto their seats in the face of a spotlight on past controversies, Dickler is among the judges seeking retention who have earned excellent reputations for their work on the bench.

“I see my job as a presiding judge in terms of how I am going to make things better,” Dickler says in an interview. “What can we put in place where people still feel like they have dignity and they still have control over their lives and over their actions?”

Dickler served 18 years as an appointed associate judge before being elected to the bench in 2006. She became presiding judge of the Domestic Violence Division in 2010 before being transferred to preside over the Domestic Relations Division the following year.

She says she worries about the impact of domestic breakdowns on children: “Whenever anyone is going through this process, it’s the biggest thing in their lives,” she says. “It’s like a puzzle: How are we going to get a child going through this process to get through it somewhat unscathed by it?”

She worked with Northwestern University to start a program for kids to talk with peers going through the same trauma. And she pushed to increase the number of attorneys qualified to represent children in domestic relations cases.

Dickler is among a number of judges in Cook County who have made a mark with courtrooms that envision a criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation more than punishment.

Circuit Judge Larry Axelrood, who works in the trial section of the Law Division, was a prosecutor and defense lawyer before being appointed an associate judge in 2005, then being elected in 2012.

His work in the veterans and mental health court calls won praise. He says he found working in specialty courts “amazing” and “life-affirming.” By seeking alternatives to incarceration, judges in the specialty courts have a “real opportunity to help someone” get their life back on track, Axelrood says in an interview.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers rates Axelrood “well qualified,” calling him a “hard-working jurist who is especially respectful” to the parties in cases he hears and their attorneys. Calling him qualified, the Chicago Bar Association says he’s “well regarded for his knowledge of the law, integrity, candor and excellent judicial demeanor.”

The council says Axelrood is generally viewed as “fair.” He says that’s his aim: “Hopefully, when everyone leaves the room, they think that I was fair. That’s all I can ask.”

Circuit Judge Martin S. Agran echoes that, saying his aim is that “whoever comes in to my courtroom, whether they win or lose, believes that I’ve been fair to them.”

Agran, a judge since 1994, has held a series of assignments. He now hears civil cases at the Rolling Meadows courthouse.

In finding him “well qualified” this year, the Chicago Council of Lawyers calls Agran a “thoughtful jurist who comes to the right conclusion. He is praised for his temperament as well as his courtroom management skills. “

Agran has decided a series of high-profile cases, including denying a pension to former Gov. George Ryan after he was convicted of corruption.

“I do my best to accommodate all parties in my courtroom,” Agran says. “To be nice, to listen and to respect everyone. In turn, they give you respect back.”

Circuit Judge Colleen Sheehan works with community members to envision alternatives to a criminal justice system many see as overly punitive. On top of her regular duties in the Juvenile Justice Division, Sheehan helped create the Restorative Justice Community Court in North Lawndale and is its presiding judge.

Unlike what happens in a traditional court setting, Sheehan works with those in her court to determine treatment plans and community-based solutions. Among them: restitution, community service and apology letters. Sheehan sits at the same level as participants in her court. Each has a right to speak.

She has been recognized for her commitment to the respectful treatment and well-being of those who appear before her.

In finding Sheehan “well qualified” this year, the Chicago Council of Lawyers says she is “reported to be extraordinarily concerned about making our court system fair for all persons and is passionate about the relationship between the well being of the community and the role of the court system.”

Judge Carl Anthony Walker also has been lauded by bar associations for his temperament. But his most significant recognition came from the Illinois Supreme Court. In June, Walker was assigned to the Illinois Appellate Court, filling a vacancy left by Judge P. Scott Neville Jr.’s appointment to the state Supreme Court.

Walker still faces a retention race for the circuit court, which requires that judges go before the voters every six years, subject to losing their seats if they don’t get 60 percent “yes” votes from voters in their race.

In finding Walker qualified, the Chicago Council of Lawyers praises him for his courtroom conduct and legal ability: “He is always well prepared and has a reputation as a solid, conscientious jurist. Judge Walker has a reputation of showing compassion to those before him and of being committed to the well being of the community.”

A judge since 2006, Walker has served in the Law Division and the Juvenile Justice Division, where he presided for a time over Cook County’s Juvenile Gun Court, as well as in the 1st Municipal Division.

In the Juvenile Justice Division, his treatment of people in his courtroom won him praise from the Chicago Council of Lawyers for his “impressive compassion.”

Caroline Riordan also contributed reporting to this report.

All 59 judges on the retention ballot, as well as those running in competitive races for open seats, can be found in our guide,