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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Who is Arthur Hill Jr., and Should He Step Aside as Judge in Vanecko Trial?

The judge who was assigned to the manslaughter trial of Richard J. Vanecko, former Mayor Rich Daley’s nephew, says he could be “fair and impartial.” But some are urging him to step aside, citing Hill’s ties to Daley and others at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Immediately after Mayor Daley’s nephew, Richard J. Vanecko, was arraigned Monday, there was an outcry against the judge assigned to the case, Circuit Court Associate Judge Arthur Hill Jr.—especially in the pages of the Sun-Times. The paper’s reporters had spent two years investigating the Koschman case until a special prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb, was appointed and Vanecko was finally indicted last week on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of David Koschman.

“Step aside,” urged Sun-Times columnists Mark Brown and Carol Marin.

Judge Hill, who was selected randomly (by a computer program called a “Randomizer”) to hear the case against Vanecko, said Monday that he could be “fair and impartial,” and that he intended to try the case unless “the lawyers” ask him to step aside.

My hunch is that after several additional days of pounding, Hill, who hears cases at the Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California, will recognize that nothing good can come of hanging on. Better to acknowledge his obvious conflicts of interest—ties to former Cook County State’s Attorney Daley, as well as to successor state attorneys Dick Devine and Anita Alvarez—and to recuse himself.

The drunken Rush Street confrontation between then-29-year-old Vanecko and 21-year-old Koschman (Vanecko allegedly threw the punch that knocked Koschman to the sidewalk, hitting his head and dying 11 days later) has been soaked in controversy because of allegations of special treatment for this member of the city’s most powerful family. Hill’s selection, random as it was, just exacerbates fears that the fix is in.

And that’s after Hill behaved with integrity and mentioned his history with Daley et al in open court. Should Vanecko be found not guilty, expect a deafening hue and cry.  Should he be found guilty, his lawyers and defenders could argue that Judge Hill needed to prove his independence.

A quick Nexis search on the 59-year-old African-American Hyde Park resident and 1978 Northwestern University Law School graduate (his B.S. is from Western Michigan University), turned up remarkably little. Here’s what we know about Hill:

+ He worked as an assistant state’s attorney from 1978 to 1988, chief of the office’s juvenile section in the mid-1980s, under then-State’s Attorney Rich Daley, who promoted Hill.

+ After leaving the office—and while a partner in the Loop law firm of Haggerty, Koening & Hill—Hill was appointed by Daley, just after he became mayor in 1989, to the CTA board. As Mark Brown wrote, “That’s a pretty plum post for a lawyer going out into private practice. Not only does it pay a small salary plus benefits, it opens up a lot of opportunities for attracting clients.”

+ During those private practice years, Hill also had an appointment to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and was elected its president in 1994.  According to a Sun-Times story from late 1994, Hill and others recommended “encouraging more affordable housing throughout the region as jobs increasingly spread to the suburbs….” The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that “At the same time [as he was a political appointee to NIPC], Hill was a partner in a private firm that worked on municipal bond issues for the city.”

+ Leaving private practice, Hill returned to the State’s Attorney’s office in 1996 under Daley friend and confidante Dick Devine. Hill worked on Devine’s campaign for State’s Attorney, chaired Devine’s transition, and climbed his way up, by 2001, to First Assistant State’s Attorney. Devine headed that office at the time of Koschman’s 2004 death, when he investigated but ultimately brought no charges against Vanecko, citing a lack of evidence.

It’s important to note that Hill had left the State’s Attorney’s office the year before, in 2003, when he was appointed to his judgeship via a complex selection process presided over by Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

Alvarez, who has spent virtually her entire career in the state’s attorney’s office—so she was a colleague of Hill’s—was a top assistant to Devine (Chief Deputy State’s Attorney) before succeeding Devine as State’s Attorney. She also declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence, and did not appoint a special prosecutor.

Dan Webb, now a partner at Winston & Strawn, who brought the charges against Vanecko, could ask for a change in judges. So could Vanecko’s lawyers, although they might see Hill’s presiding over the case as a plus. Either the prosecution or the defense can use its one challenge, without giving a reason, to ask for a new judge.

A grand jury continues to investigate whether favoritism for the well-connected Vanecko played a role in the case—and whether charges should be brought against the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County States Attorney’s office in connection with the decision not to charge anyone in the Koschman’s death.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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