A couple weeks ago, Medill Watchdog and WGN collaborated on an odd glimpse into one Chicago judge's courtroom. The judge, Gloria Chevere, commonly used a rarely implemented judicial power, direct criminal contempt, to send 30 people to jail over four years—eight times for wearing their pants too low.
Her reasoning was, at times, rather colorful:
It wasn’t much different when Fredrick Brown’s hearing on criminal trespass charges came up last April 16. Judge Chevere concluded her opening remarks to the jurors by warning, according to a court transcript: “I don’t allow rodeo clown pants in this courtroom. So if you are wearing those kind of rodeo clown pants, you know, the kind where you can see the underwear, understand this. It will be considered disrespectful to this Court.
“It will be considered contempt of court and you’re going in for two days, and, if you appeal that, I’m going to win and you’re going to lose.”
Brown was in the process of having his charges dropped by prosecutors. Eight days after the news broke, Chevere was reassigned from criminal court.
It is, in fact, not the first time Judge Chevere was reassigned from her job after a news report. In 2010, Chevere was shuffled around and given a mentor after Fox Chicago and the BGA found four judges leaving work early; they recorded Chevere in her backyard two hours before court was scheduled to close.
When time came for Chevere's retention election in 2012, she received an uncommon "no" recommendation from both the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Chicago Bar Association, which generally recommend retention for a substantial majority of judges. The recommendation of the former suggested the Fox/BGA investigation was not an outlier:
Her legal ability is generally considered adequate for her call and attorneys believe she runs her courtroom efficiently. However, she is reported to be sometimes "dismissive and rude" on the bench. She reportedly is often unprepared—many respondents believe she has not read pleadings sufficiently before ruling. She has the reputation of unilaterally cancelling her 2:30 pm call, saying that it is not necessary. There were many negative comments about her performance as a judge, primarily related to temperament and diligence.
Several respondents believe the judge unnecessarily issues arrests warrants for defendants who are late to court, which wastes resources. About half of the respondents also complained that her rulings are erratic, which some attributed to her being too often unprepared. The Council finds her Not Qualified for retention.
The Chicago Bar was a bit more kind, but touched on the same criticism:
Reports from attorneys describe the candidate as punctual with adequate legal knowledge and that she runs an efficient courtroom. Nevertheless, the candidate is found not recommended due to her unwillingness to conform to attendance policies established for all judges. This comes after she was the subject of a highly publicized news report about leaving her courtroom assignment early.
In 2012, Chevere was one of only four Cook County judges to get a no/not qualified nod from the majority of bar associations weighing in on the election. And yet 63 percent of voters chose to retain her, just north of the 60 percent required to stay on the bench; in fact, all four were retained, including Cynthia Brim, who had previously been arrested for assaulting a sheriff's deputy, and whose history of retention recommendations was much worse than Chevere's. Chevere is next up for election in 2018.
Not that those retention votes were really any surprise. It's been 24 years—specifically, the 1990 election—since a Cook County judge wasn't retained by voters, as we're reminded when judges like Brim hit the ballot.
But the strange thing about 1990 is that a total of seven judges weren't retained, and not because of a sudden bout of interest in the local judiciary, but because of a dude in Florida and his universally anti-incumbent "Throw the Hypocritical Bastards Out" campaign. In other words, a real-life Harold Beale came up with a clever, if undiscerning, pitch against every incumbent elected official in America, and it appears to have knocked off some judges, according to the sole in-depth study of Cook County judicial elections I've ever found:
One of the co-chairs of the 1990 retention judges’ campaign committee did, to his credit, correctly spot the increase in all-no voting, telling the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that “the group of voters who voted straight ‘no’ was higher than ever before” (Rooney 1990a). He also singled out suburban voters for being most responsible for the shift. This would further support the notion of a relatively stronger response to the THRO campaign from conservative voters, given the higher numbers of conservative voters in the suburbs than in the city.
Statewide, retention approval for judges fell seven percent from 1988 to 1990; since not-qualified recommendations from bar associations does depress retention approval somewhat—perilously close to the minimum, in the case of Chevere—the theory is that THRO tipped the balance enough to throw a handful of judges out, hypocritical bastards or not.
Albert Klumpp, author of the study, entitled it "Judicial Retention Elections in Cook County: Exercise of Democracy, or Exercise in Futility?" Ten years after he wrote it, retention is assured as ever. A minority of voters will continue to mark "no," enough to at least register a warning to judges; to go farther, Illinois will have to consider the precedent of other states.