LOOKING BACK ON FIFTY YEARS IN THE COURTHOUSE

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Submitted Date 02/13/2023
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I remember quite well the first time I was ever in the Logan County Courthouse. I was 13 years old and had just started the 8th grade at the Lincoln Junior High. My mom was working as a Deputy Circuit Clerk in Lynn Gilchrist's Circuit Clerk office. I walked over to get a ride home after school.
I walked into the building and before I got anywhere near the stairs I was approached by a small but fierce looking gentleman in a gray shirt and gray pants, weidling a push broom as he quickly approached.
He pulled a metal device from his pocket and held it to what I then saw was a hole in his throat where his voice box once was. "What's your business here?" he barked in a robotic, electronically enhanced voice. Later I would learn his name was Joe Young, the courthouse custodian. He had lost his larynx to cancer and could only speak with the aid of the device he was holding.
I had never experienced someone using such a device and it startled me. I must have looked at him wide eyed and gap mouthed without answering, because he repeated himself, a little louder and harsher. "What's your business here?" Finally I blurted out that I was there to see my mother. Joe pointed to the 2d floor with his electronic device. "Make sure you go straight there, don't mess around in the building," he commanded, and then put his broom down and returned to sweeping the floor.
That first visit left me with the impression that what went on in the Logan County Courthouse was serious business, not to be taken lightly.
Eight years later I returned. This time to start my senior internship as a in Roger Thompson's State's Attorney's Office. The first day was eventful, I sat in the gallery for Judge Robert Thornton's traffic court. When he asked the first witness to stand up and be sworn, I stood up and raised my right hand. Greg Roosevelt the Assistant State's Attorney gave me a quick palms down . I was there just to watch, not to testify. I didn't make that mistake a second time.
Later that day Greg took me to felony court on the 2d floor (the 3rd floor wasn't being used as Judge John McCullough didn't like it). I'd worn a short sleeve button down Oxford shirt and tie to court without a jacket. We both entered the courtroom, stepped inside the bar and had a seat in the chairs inside the railing.
I was introduced to the stone faced Judge McCullough, who nodded and didn't say much else. Later he called Greg up to the bench and told him if I was going to sit inside the bar of the courtroom I needed to wear a suit coat and a tie. Once again, I got the message that what happened at the Logan County Courthouse was serious business.
Three years later, having graduated law school and passed the Illinois Bar, I returned once again, this time as an Assistant State's Attorney, working for newly elected State's Attorney Gerald Dehner.
I started out, like most new assistants, in traffic court. The Public Defender was another young lawyer by the name of John Turner, who had been in practice for about a year.
Not too long after I got there Judge McCullough was appointed to the Appellate Court, Judge Thornton moved up to the Resident Circuit Judge position and local lawyer David Coogan was appointed as Associate Judge.
The state legislature then passed a series of legislative changes that toughened the state's DUI laws This caused my boss to decide that our office needed to get tougher on DUI offenders.This wasn't well received. Few people would agree to do the jail sentence, so we ended up trying multiple DUI cases before Logan County juries. I tried over 70 jury trials in the 3 ½ years I was in the State's Attorney's Office, which I'm quite sure is more than I have presided over in the 14 years I've been a judge. The vast majority of these cases were DUI.
Nearly all those trials were in front of Judge Coogan, who certainly presented a different approach to judging than the rather stoic McCullough or even his predecessor Judge Thornton. While he was no slouch at knowing the law, he placed a priority on using common sense and making people feel like they were being heard. And he took himself much less seriously than any other judge I had seen. A court call in front of Judge Coogan, when the last litigant had left the courtroom, often turned into a free association stand up comedy-like routine. He had so many stories to tell, so many jokes, it was improv with a legal twist. Nobody in the Courtroom was safe from his good natured jabs. "Funk, why do you keep bringing that weak stuff in here, trying to prove that case was like trying to cram ten pounds of stuff into a five pound bag!"
His one-liners became the stuff of lawyer lore and courthouse chatter for years. "Where else can you get entertainment like this… and get paid for it! " Coming from anybody else, this banter might have sounded cruel, but Judge Coogan had a long record of showing he cared deeply about the people in his courtroom.
Judge Coogan made going to court an adventure. We played by the rules and got things done, but I was left with the impression that court business didn't have to be quite as serious as I'd believed it to be.
After a short stint working at Fred Nessler's law firm, I found myself looking for something different. I wanted to stay in Lincoln but wasn't optimistic about finding employment here. I called Roger Thompson, who was then in private practice in Lincoln to ask if he knew of anyone hiring.
"Why don't you just hang out your shingle?"was his response. That's lawyer talk for opening a solo office. Up to that point I really hadn't considered doing that. But coming from Roger, who I deeply respected, it made sense. He called me back a day later and offered to rent me space in his office on Pulaski Street. That was an offer I couldn't refuse. So later that month I opened my solo practice.
For the next 19 years I practiced solo with the help of my faithful assistant Debbie Ihrer. In Lincoln solo practitioners would take whatever cases walked through the door. I was no exception to that. I avoided matters that didn't involve courtroom work but otherwise I took on whatever came. Personal Injury, Bankruptcy, Criminal, Juvenile, Small Claims, Divorce, you name it, I did it.
Eventually the practice got big enough that I felt the need for more space and moved to an office in the back of the Arcade building. That proved interesting as the building was a haven for cockroaches, and we would often turn the lights on in the morning and watch them scurry for cover. Other types of vermin also inhabited the place. One Thursday during Juvenile Court I opened my briefcase and left it sitting on one of the counsel tables. A few minutes later a big hairy spider about the size of my open palm crawled out, producing screams and shutters from about half the courtroom. I grabbed the briefcase from under it and smashed it against the table.
Shortly after that I accepted Judge Dehner's offer to become Logan County Public Defender. Back then the PD job was part-time . I handled all of the felony cases . It was challenging but most of the time I loved it.
Butting heads in the Courtroom with Tim Huyett and his first Assistant Kirk Schoenbein made the PD job much more than a part time job. They were among the best trial lawyers I had ever faced. We tried some big cases. The Jon Morgan murder case is one I initially handled. In 1995 there was no automatic transfer of a juvenile to adult court for murder and so we did a hearing on that question. There were time limits on when this could be done and Judge Coogan ended up scheduling the hearing on a Saturday, the only time in my 38 years in this system that that has happened.
I gave up the Public Defender job in 1997 and my practice became more concentrated in Family, Probate and Juvenile work. Regular contested custody battles became a big part of my workload. Ted Mills and Nick Burgrabe were the primary opponents on the other side. We slugged it out daily in the courtroom but that didn't keep me from being friends with my opponents outside court. Then on Thursday mornings we would gather for Juvenile Court before Judge Feeney, along with Don Behle, Dick Koritz, the Mucks, Tom Van Hook and a young litigator by the name of Jon Wright. It often turned into a kind of informal bar association meeting, with lots of war stories being swapped, and lots of good natured ribbing.
For some reason the producers of daytime TV talk shows found the stories behind a few of our clients' lives show worthy. In one calendar year, 1995, we saw the people we represented in Logan County Family and Juvenile Court on just about every daytime talk show then in production. Maury Povich, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Ricki Lake all found themselves interviewing people from Lincoln, Illinois on their talk shows.
Then in 2008 Judge Coogan retired, I applied for the Associate's position that Tom Harris had been appointed to the year before and which he was vacating to take Judge Coogan's place. There were 12 other candidates, most of whom were well qualified, so I wasn't sure I'd get it.
I'll never forget October 17, 2008. I was sitting in my office discussing an estate plan with an elderly client when my secretary buzzed in and told me Chief Judge Robb was on the phone. I'm not sure that client got very good advice after I took the call because Judge Robb advised me I had been appointed as an Associate Circuit Judge and wanted to know when I could start.
I told the reporter from the Courier (yes, they had those even at that late date!) that getting this job was a "dream come true for me." And I meant that. I hadn't always dreamed of being a judge. My aspirations earlier were to spend all of my time litigating. But over the course of 24 years of lawyering, I had started longing to be free of the demands of unrealistic clients and from the constant chasing after fees that private practice demanded. Judging had begun to look very appealing.
My first year on the bench rather quickly erased those utopian visions I had created of what this job is like. Life on the other side of the bench is not as rosy as I had imagined it. In practice I had gotten used to doing 1 or 2 contested hearings a week and spending the majority of my time in the office getting ready for them. Now, the first week after I came back from the Mclean County judge's "boot camp" I had 175 cases on my docket the first day. An overflow crowd of irritated, unimpressed traffic court defendants stared me down ,all looking like they were only interested in one question- "when am I going to get outta here!"
I had a list nearly a page long of admonitions about their trial rights, and another list of questions I had for them in the event they pleaded guilty which was equally long. The Courtroom, that day in mid December, was 80 degrees. So hot that my bailiff had to turn on the A/C. And by the time I read all those admonitions and got the last defendant out the door it was an hour past quitting time. So much for Utopia.
It took me some time to get used to the new job. I remember hearing a contested custody case and when a lawyer jumped up to object, there was a long pause before I thought to myself- "Oh, yeah, I'm the one who has to rule on this objection." Eventually I got used to the idea that I was the one making rulings, not advocating for one of the parties, but muscle memory or something made that hard at first.
Another difference between practicing law and judging was that as a judge you did not get to pick your clients. Whoever files a case ends up in front of you. All judge's have stories to tell about their cases. Here's a few of mine.
One day in divorce court I asked the parties to pull the microphone up close to them and speak into it so I could tell if it was working. The Petitioner did and said "Test one, two." The Respondent pulled her's up, sort of sheepishly looked around the room, and then sang the first verse of Wayne Newton's "Danke Scholen" into the mic, while I sat gape mouthed so flabbergasted that I didn't stop her until she was done. Then she looked at me and said. "Sorry, I've just always wanted to do that."
I had an Order of Protection case involving a man an Assistant State's Attorney had told me previously was a "gang-banger" from Chicago. His ex-girlfriend had filed for the order against him and he demanded a hearing. He was a young man that was well built and muscular, with lots of tattoos and piercings. As she testified against him I could tell he was getting agitated, rolling his eyes and audibly huffing and puffing. Finally when she accused him of hitting her, he slammed his hand down on the table. He started to stand up and I feared he was going to attack the witness. I used my most authoritative voice to tell him "Mr. _____ sit down immediately, or I will call security!" It was at that point I noticed that my bailiff, all 5' 8" 140 lbs of him had left his seat and moved his seventy something year old frame to a position about five feet from the agitated litigant, who looked at him and slowly sank back down into his seat. We finished the hearing without further problems.
Afterwards I called my bailiff up to the bench and asked him, "What exactly did you think you were going to do if that guy didn't sit down?"
He looked at me with a glint in his eye and smiled. "My job, judge."
One day in Ordinance Violation court after a gentleman had announced he wanted a trial, the City finished their case and I turned to the Defendant and asked him if he had evidence he wanted to present. "Yes, I do," he responded. I asked him if he had other witnesses he wanted to call and he said no, but he wanted to testify himself. So I swore him in and asked him to take the witness stand. He dutifully took the stand and as I always do, I told him this was his chance to tell his side of the story. He said o.k. and then he sat there without saying anything and kind of stared at me. " I repeated myself, reminding him this was his chance to tell his side of the story. He nodded, and looked right at the City attorney and said loudly " I claim my 5th Amendment right to remain silent!"
I looked at him with what I'm sure was a rather puzzled expression and said, "Well, no one can make you testify Mr. ____ but you said you wanted to testify, so this is your chance to tell your side of the story."
He nodded vigorously and once again said, "Yeah, I claim my right to remain silent!."
"Ok, you can step down then," was about all I could say.
What we tend to remember are those situations that are not what Judge Coogan used to call "The practice of law in a grand fashion." But looking back on the experience as a whole, I truly believe that's what we have here. It is not grand in the sense of multiple resources at our command or the latest and greatest technology to wow people with. We certainly don't have a population that can afford the biggest names from "Super Lawyers" or the most expensive experts in the field to aid them in their cases. What we do have is a rich supply of hard working, committed legal professionals and support staff that put their client's interest above the opportunity for profit and their ethical principles above the need to win. We have a hard earned reputation in the area as being the best place to practice in Central Illinois and I hope that I have contributed to keeping it that way. I feel like the folks I work with do every day.

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