Illinois Supreme Court candidate Harris accused of ethical breach involving nephew’s case

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Illinois Appellate Court Judge Shelly Harris, who seeks an Illinois Supreme Court seat in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, allegedly attempted to interfere in 2016 in the pending case of his nephew with two different appellate court judges.

One of the judges, now-retired Judge Mary Anne Mason, said that as Harris began discussing the case during a March 29, 2016 meeting in her office, she cut him off: “I need you to tell me why you’re trying to interfere in this case on behalf of your nephew. It isn’t ethical.”

She said Harris responded that he had great respect for her, and walked out of the meeting in her chambers.

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As a result of the encounter Mason disqualified herself from the case, which then was reassigned to another panel, records show.

Mason wrote a memo detailing the encounter that she shared, she said, with bar associations that were in the process of evaluating the qualifications of state Supreme Court justice candidates in the March primary. Mason declined to provide that memo to Injustice Watch, but agreed to talk about the matter in an interview.

Mason, who retired in 2019, said that the issue has been reported to the state Judicial Inquiry Board, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

Harris did not return calls to his campaign nor an email to him personally about the issue.

Chicago Sun Times

Sheldon “Shelly” Harris

The incident, if verified, would appear to violate judicial canons that prohibit judges from private conversations with one side in pending cases, and another that prohibit judges from using their prestige to advance the interests of others. Those canons, which were enacted as state Supreme Court rules, govern judicial behavior and lead to potential disciplines ranging from private reprimands to removal from office.

The board does not comment on complaints that it may have received.

No mention of the issue appears in the ratings of the three bar associations that explain their findings. The Chicago Bar Association rated Harris “qualified,” citing his “diligence in preparing for oral argument and issuing timely opinions, and good judicial manor.” The Chicago Council of Lawyers rated Harris “qualified,” finding him “knowledgeable and hard working” and attentive during oral arguments. The Illinois State Bar Association wrote that he was considered “diligent and knowledgeable with well-written opinions,” but gave him a “not qualified rating” citing only complaints about his demeanor.

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Officials of the Chicago and Illinois State Bar associations did not respond to questions about how, if at all, Mason’s memo impacted their evaluations. Malcolm Rich, the executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, told Injustice Watch that the council had not been informed of Mason’s memo.

The case involved Harris’s nephew, Jason Harris, who is a suburban lawyer, an insurance adjuster, and general contractor. A woman sued Harris over the slow pace of repairs after a fire damaged her home in 2009; Harris then countersued. In 2011, the woman, Reava King, went to court seeking an order of protection, citing incidents that she said made her afraid that Harris was stalking her.

After a judge rejected King’s effort to win a protective order, Jason Harris sought sanctions against her lawyer for filing a frivolous claim. The circuit court dismissed the sanctions motion, and Harris appealed.

Mason wrote an order dismissing the appeal on March 10, 2016, when Jason Harris failed to promptly file a brief in support of his appeal.

Mary Anne Mason

After Jason Harris filed a motion to reconsider, Mason said, Shelly Harris stepped in and approached an appellate judge on the panel, Mason said. Mason learned of the incident and invited Harris into her office, she told Injustice Watch. 

Mason declined to identify the judge whom Harris first approached. Neither Judge James G. Fitzgerald Smith nor Judge Terrance J. Lavin, who joined Mason in signing the order dismissing the case, returned messages asking about the incident.

Mason said the appellate judge whom Harris approached sent her a text message saying  he wanted to discuss the case. When the two of them met, she said, Shelly Harris’s name came up.

She then called Harris and invited him to her chambers, a conversation she said occurred March 29, 2016: “He came in and sat down, and immediately launched into, ‘I want to tell you about my nephew, my sister’s son,’” Mason said. “As soon as he started going into that I said, ‘I don’t want to talk about your nephew.’ He said, ‘I thought that’s why I was here.’ Then I said, ‘I need you to tell me why you’re trying to interfere in this case on behalf of your nephew. It isn’t ethical.'”

She said she asked Harris why he was discussing the reconsideration motion filed by his nephew.  “At first he tried to say, ‘No, I look at motions all the time.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘Do you look at motions in cases that don’t involve your relatives?’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t.'”

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything and I’m not going to talk about your nephew.'”

She “told him my opinion was that what he had done was unethical. I couldn’t go without that being unsaid,” Mason said. “He said, ‘Well, I have the utmost respect for you,’ and then he left.”

Mason then recused herself from the case and wrote the memo about the encounter, but did not make that memo public. “I thought the incident was significant enough that I should keep it in my file,” she said.

After the case was reassigned a new panel upheld the trial court’s decision denying  sanctions against King’s attorney.