Wednesday, December 12, 2012

As close to ‘goo-goo style’ government as we’re ever likely to get in Chicago?

The Criminal Courts building -- nine decades and counting of giving us criminal justice, Chicago-style

Call it a plus, if you will. Because I’m actually encouraged with the legal process thus far for Richard Vanecko – the Mayor Daley nephew (and grandson) who now faces criminal charges in the 2004 death of another man.

By the legal process, I’m talking about since the point when Vanecko was actually arrested and has to face the process by which alleged criminal acts are adjudicated.

FOR VANECKO THIS week faced arraignment. That’s the part of the legal process in which a defendant is asked by a judge, “How do you plead?”

And he responds, “Not guilty, your honor.” Then, he gets assigned to a trial judge who will be the one who has to oversee his case for the next year or two (or however long it takes the attorneys for both sides to prepare for this trial).

Note he pleads “not guilty.” At this stage, he has no alternative. If at some point in the future, he wishes to change that to a “guilty” plea, he can do so. But what happened this week was about assigning Vanecko’s case to a judge for eventual trial.

And that is where I see the plus in this case.

FOR THE VANECKO case was assigned to Associate Judge Arthur Hill, Jr. – who has been a judge for nearly a decade following a career in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

Which is a typical career path for the men and women who wear those black robes and preside over cases at the Criminal Courts Building.

But what makes this case unique, and encouraging, is the fact that when Hill presided over his first hearing in the Vanecko case, he felt compelled to recite his professional record in law enforcement.

Which involved being hired as an assistant state’s attorney back in the days of Richard M. Daley as head prosecutor for Cook County.

AND WHEN DALEY eventually became mayor, Hill got one of his few non-criminal law positions in his career – he served a stint on the Chicago Transit Authority board. He was a Daley appointee.

And Hill definitely didn’t have any objections from Daley when he became a judge in 2003.

In short, Judge Hill is a Rich Daley ally.

To the point where he said publicly in his courtroom, “if the lawyers want me to step aside, I will.” Even though he also said he thinks he can be “fair and impartial” in deciding whether or not Vanecko’s behavior in the death of David Koschman rises to the level of a criminal conviction.

IN THE OLD days, it likely wouldn’t have been brought up. It would have just been presumed that a mayoral family member in trouble would get a break from the judge.

For Richard J. Daley was of the belief that judges were political positions just as much as any other. The idea that a judge should think himself above politics would have been absurd to him. He always made it clear he didn’t think much of reform efforts that thought judges should be appointed based on some high-minded appeal to legal ideals.

Let the people decide! So long as they pick the “right” candidates like they do for every other office.

The idea that Hill would acknowledge that there might be reason for him to step aside shows we have advanced in a certain sense.

NOT THAT IT’S a guarantee that Hill will be forced off of this case. For there’s no guarantee that any other judge would be more impartial.

Call it the drawback of having Richard M. Daley serve just over three decades as state’s attorney and mayor – he has a lot of contacts. There’s hardly anyone who can’t be perceived as having a Daley bias.

And as for those who believe that we ought to pick a judge from outside the area to come into this case (just as a special prosecutor – former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb – has already been named), I’d wonder if it might bring in some bias against the city.

Some rural judge thinking he can appeal to his people back home by “putting away” the mayoral nephew – regardless of the legal merits of the case.

BACK IN THE days of Operation Greylord (a federal investigation of judicial corruption), some Southern Illinois judges were brought in to oversee the criminal cases. But the partisanship based on regionalism has become all the more intense in recent years.

That is why I’m wondering if a judge willing to admit his potential for bias IS the best we’re going to get in this particular case – which is going to linger with us for so long that we’re likely to be sick of it by the time it actually makes it to trial.


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