Judicial corruption in Illinois: a caveat for the whole nation

On Books

September 09, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Though inured to politicians' perfidy since the fiery dawn of time, Illinois' concerned citizenry was startled in June of 1969 when the state's Supreme Court Chief Justice and an associate justice were accused of overturning a graft conviction for personal gain. The chief, Roy J. Solfisburg Jr., a Republican, was popularly thought to be destined for the U.S. Supreme Court. Associate Justice Ray I. Klingbiel, also a Republican, and a onetime mayor of Moline, was widely respected.

Investigation proceeded swiftly. One ultimate consequence was the conviction and imprisonment for graft of Otto Kerner, a Democrat, onetime governor, nationally honored for chairing, in 1967 and 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disobedience. When he was brought down, he was a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, one rung below the Supreme Court, to which he also was reputed to be headed.

Another consequence was that the lead counsel for the investigation, a then relatively obscure lawyer named John Paul Stevens, himself rose to the U.S. Supreme Court -- with breathtaking swiftness, by 1975.

If you think of the public process as consummate theater, this was a hell of a play. Now, one of Stevens' associates in the investigation, then a young and inexperienced lawyer, has written an extraordinary, clear-headed and powerful book about the case and its implications: Illinois Justice, by Kenneth A. Manaster (University of Chicago, 317 pages, $ 27.50).

Initial exposure of the scandal came from Sherman H. Skolnick, 38 in 1969, a wheelchair-bound polio victim, a self-taught researcher, crusader and public gadfly. Widely considered to be something between comically paranoid and infuriatingly insane, he had traced stock transfer records to the justices.

A scattering of newspaper reporters and editors played roles. One was The Cleveland Plain Dealer, through the work of Donald L. Barlett, then 39, who had left the Chicago Daily News because his probing of the roots of the scandal was suppressed. (Barlett went on to win two Pulitzer prizes at The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

An early expose was printed by the Alton Evening Telegraph, and then by the Daily News. Staff at the tiny Daily Calumet had originally tried to break the story but the publisher blocked it. But by and large, very little initiative came from the Chicago and Illinois press, discouraged by one dominant libel lawyer who was well connected in high places.

The roots of the scandal were gifts of, or invitations to purchase, stock in a startup, the Civic Center Bank & Trust Company. Twenty or more judges and other public figures and news media executives became shareholders, through the actions of Theodore J. Isaacs, secretary and general counsel of CCB. Isaacs had been Director of the Illinois Department of Revenue under Gov. Kerner. He had been convicted for conflict of interests in that office, and acquitted on appeal, in a decision written by Klingbiel and supported by Solfisburg, among others.

When Skolnick filed a court petition containing charges against the justices, the Illinois House of Representatives quickly created an investigating commission. The Illinois Supreme Court then ordered its own Special Commission -- a move taken by most observers to be a whitewash operation.

It didn't go that way. The five members appointed Steven counsel. He was a little-known antitrust lawyer in a 10-member Chicago firm. Manaster, who wrote this book, was one of a handful of associate counsels. All were unpaid.

Essentially, the two justices' offenses involved 700 bought and 100 donated shares of a $20-a-share stock. Solfisburg's profit was $3,500; Klingbile's, $2,000 -- even with inflation considered, hardly fortunes. Much of my own working life has been spent examining and writing about official and especially judicial corruption. I have been consistently amazed that officials prostitute their offices and honor equally casually for rerlatively small stakes as for large.

Manaster punctiliously -- and with personal modesty -- mines the text of the various transcripts, many of which he was a participant in. He builds a compelling tale of suspense and energy. Manaster does not write like most lawyers.

The Special Commission's final report demanded Solfisburg's and Klingbiel's prompt resignations. After some tempestuous temporizing, both quit.

The broader results evolved gradually and messily. Among them were institution in a new Illinois State Constitution and by the Supreme Court of more stringent standards of judicial conduct.

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