Judicial watchdog files complaint against appellate judge accused of interfering in nephew’s case

Update (Fri., May 13): A spokesperson for the Illinois Supreme Court said Harris moved his retirement date up to July 5. That means he will likely avoid a public hearing about the misconduct allegations against him.

The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board has filed a complaint accusing Appellate Judge Sheldon Harris of having improper conversations with two judges who were hearing a case that involved his nephew.

The board, which investigates judicial misconduct complaints, also alleged that Harris lied about the conversations under oath when the board questioned him.

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The complaint now goes to the Illinois Courts Commission, which will hold a public hearing on the complaint’s merits and determine whether to discipline Harris formally. Discipline could range from a formal reprimand to removal from the bench. Even if the Illinois Courts Commission chooses to discipline Harris, he’ll receive a full pension of more than $200,000 annually for life, based on his years of service, according to records provided to Injustice Watch by the Judges Retirement System of Illinois.

When reached by phone this week, Harris, who plans to retire in July, said the board’s accusations are “absolutely untrue” and that he would contest them. Injustice Watch was the first to report on the allegations against Harris in March 2020, when he was running for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. Harris did not respond to questions from Injustice Watch at the time. But he told other attorneys that the allegations that he had tried to interfere in his nephew’s case were false and politically motivated.

Chicago Sun Times

Judge Sheldon “Shelly” Harris

According to the board’s complaint, Harris approached fellow Appellate Judge Terrance Lavin in March 2016, after a panel Lavin sat on dismissed an appeal filed by his nephew, Jason Harris. The other two judges on the panel were Appellate Judge James F. Smith and Appellate Judge Mary Ann Mason.

During Harris’ conversation with Lavin, he showed him a copy of the panel’s dismissal order, identified Jason Harris as his nephew, “and asked Justice Lavin if he didn’t think the order was a ‘little harsh,’ or words to that effect,” according to the Judicial Inquiry Board complaint.

The board said Lavin suggested that Harris speak with Mason, who wrote the order dismissing his nephew’s case.

Lavin then went to Mason and told her what had happened, according to the complaint. Mason reached out to Harris and they had a meeting on March 29, 2016, where she expressed concerns that his conversation with Lavin had been unethical and asked Harris to explain himself.

At the meeting, the board alleges, Harris acknowledged talking to Lavin and admitted that he cared about the order because the case involved his nephew. Mason then removed herself from the case and had it assigned to a different appellate panel.

Mason, who retired in 2019, declined to comment on the allegations.

Injustice Watch previously reported that Mason wrote a memo about her meeting with Harris and held onto it for more than three years before sharing it with the bar associations that evaluate judicial candidates ahead of the 2020 election.

The complaint says the Judicial Inquiry Board interviewed Harris about the allegations in February 2020, a month before the Injustice Watch story was published. Harris told the board that he hadn’t met with Mason until after the case was reassigned. He also said that his nephew’s involvement in the case was “incidental,” and did not influence his decision to reach out to the other judges. The board alleges that Harris knew both statements were false when he made them.

It is exceedingly rare for the Judicial Inquiry Board to file charges against an appellate judge; it has happened just four previous times since 1972, according to charging documents on the board’s website. The last time was in 2017, when the board accused Appellate Judge Robert J. Steigmann of using his official court letterhead to solicit paid speaking engagements. Steigmann was reprimanded but remains on the court.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court announced that Harris is retiring in December. His retirement opened up a vacancy on the appellate court that will be filled by the winner of the June 28 Cook County primary election.

Read the full text of the complaint against Appellate Judge Sheldon Harris: