To a certain generation of Chicagoans, the name of “Milton Shadur” is going to be a slur of sorts – something you call someone who does something so despicable that it defies easy explanation.
What is it that the federal judge of nearly three decades (he was appointed to a post in the U.S. District Court for Chicago by President Jimmy Carter) did that was so bad, in the minds of Chicagoans of a certain age?
HE SHOWED COMPASSION for “Fast Eddie.”
Shadur is the judge who told prosecutors on Thursday that they were being “greedy” by wanting to send one-time Ald Edward R. Vrdolyak to a federal prison for at least 3 ½ years (41 months, to be exact).
During the morning portion of Vrdolyak’s sentencing hearing held in Shadur’s Dirksen Building courtroom, the judge said he could see circumstances where a sentence of more like 6 months would be appropriate.
And some legal observers took up airtime during the mid-day television newscasts to speculate that Vrdolyak could wind up getting just probation. Or at worst, home confinement – meaning he’d have to wear one of those ankle bracelet devices while lounging around his East Side neighborhood residence (which is a fenced-in mini-mansion with private tennis court, surrounded by working-class bungalows and the remains of steel mills visible in the distance).
IN THE END, Eddie got 5 years – of probation. No “Oxford education” (incarceration at the minimum-security facility at Oxford, Wis.) for Vrdolyak.
Now conservative critics of Shadur usually point to analysis written by judicial monitoring groups that contend he is an activist judge with a high rate of his rulings overturned on appeal.
The Chicago Council of Lawyers, in its evaluation written in 1991, said that Shadur upsets attorneys with his practice of, “freely criticizing attorneys in his written opinions.”
So in that sense, Shadur’s behavior on Thursday was totally in character, when he attacked prosecutors in the Vrdolyak case for what he believed was their overstating of the harm suffered by the former Chicago Medical School.
VRDOLYAK PLEADED GUILTY earlier this year to criminal charges related to the sale of a building owned by the school. Prosecutors say Vrdolyak used his connections to direct the sale to a specific group, then was to split a $1.5 million fee.
But Shadur said he did not see evidence that Vrdolyak ever got any of that money, and that he did not see how it was that drastically different from a finder’s fee typically paid to people in real estate transactions.
That might be a logical way to look at the incident. In fact, it is unusual to find instances where judges are willing to stand up to prosecutors. All too many judges in our various court systems behave as though they think they are supposed to cooperate with prosecutors – and view the defense as “the problem.”
If only everybody would just admit their guilt to whatever a prosecutor said they did, the judicial system would be a lot less clogged.
BUT WHEN IT comes to Vrdolyak, logic goes out the window. The long-time alderman from the far southeast corner of Chicago (the land where Indiana, and not Lake Michigan, lies beyond the eastern boundary) stirs up emotions in people old enough to remember the 1980s and earlier.
Vrdolyak was one of the aldermen who helped prop up former Mayor Jane Byrne when she ran against Michael Bilandic, then turned against her so much that she was virtually unelectable when she tried to go for a second term in the 1983 elections.
That, of course, was the election that saw the supposed Byrne/Richard M. Daley race turn into the coronation of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
Those first couple of years of the Washington era (1983-87) are what Vrdolyak will be remembered for. He was the alderman whose persona made him the leader of the 29 City Council members who were willing to openly defy Washington’s initiative – out of hopes that a future mayor could come along and save the city from whatever damage Washington caused.
THE OLD “COUNCIL Wars” sketches performed by comedian Aaron Freeman literally used to parody the Star Wars films by depicting “Harold Skytalker” doing battle against “Darth Vrdolyak.”
To this day, there are some people who live in the East Side and Hegewisch neighborhoods who will praise the name of Vrdolyak for creating an atmosphere that kept black people out of their respective neighborhoods.
But there is another portion of the population from those days who viewed Vrdolyak and his actions as an embarrassment for Chicago’s reputation (moreso than anything done by Rod Blagojevich these days is embarrassing).
When the Wall Street Journal published a story about Chicago politics from that era and labeled the city “Beirut by the Lake,” they were talking about Vrdolyak’s obstructionist behavior – which only ended when the courts forced a redrawing of the boundaries of certain wards to create districts capable of electing people sympathetic to Washington.
TO THOSE PEOPLE, this current case against Vrdolyak was long-overdue punishment. He was going to be carted off to prison, and some of the masses from that past era would have cheered.
It might have seemed to the Washington supporter of old like Al Capone being busted by the feds for income tax evasion rather than his criminal domination of Chicago’s public life in the 1920s, but they would have taken it just for the sight of “Fast Eddie” being led off to jail.
Instead, it won’t happen. He got what many people will consider to be minimal punishment for his lifetime of political influence. And that will cause them to view the judge more harshly than he deserves.