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Column

Burke's wife should step down as chief justice

Husband's corruption would create a serious image problem

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

For the sake of Illinois and its highest court, Anne Burke should step down from her role as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, to which she was recently elected by her fellow justices.

This is not personal. My several friends who know the justice well all say she is smart, hard-working and caring.

The excruciating problem is that she is likely on the high court bench because of her husband, the indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who may well be convicted of public corruption during her 3-year term as chief justice. A close observer of the federal courts nationwide tells me the chances of indicted defendants in corruption cases being found not guilty are about as remote as being struck by lightning. So, the optics, as they say, are hideous. The media would blat: “Illinois chief justice’s husband convicted of corruption. What’s new?”

Background: For decades, Alderman and party ward Committeeman Ed Burke chaired the Cook County Democratic Party judicial endorsement committee. He “made” hundreds of judges in a huge county where party approval has, until recent years, been tantamount to election.

After a half century on the Chicago City Council and many intimations of influence-peddling, Ed Burke has been indicted for, among many other charges, attempting to squeeze a small restaurant owner into doing property tax business with his law firm; this, in return for lifting his “hold” on a city permit necessary to do business. Tawdry, even by the low standards of Chicago politics.

As the above might suggest, Illinois has a real bad image problem. From 1970 to 2017, more than 2,100 state residents were convicted of public corruption crimes. In the same period, the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Illinois (Chicagoland) tallied more corruption convictions than any district in the nation. Since 1973, four Illinois governors have been measured for striped suits.

There is also the problem of “legal corruption.” For example, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2011 that Alderman Burke hired former state Rep. Robert Molaro to work in his city office for one month at $12,000 ($144,000 annual equivalent). This one month of “work” allowed Molaro to double the pensionable base of his state pension. (Welcome to Illinois politics.) And get this: His task for Burke – to write a paper about the sorry, underfunded state of the Illinois pension systems!

Burke also has $11 million in his campaign accounts; he can use the millions as personal income, though he is now churning through the campaign money to pay big legal bills.

Worse are the perceptions of corruption. People across the country – and even around the globe – link Illinois and Chicago to corruption (Al Capone still lingers in the imagination). A 2012 national survey by Public Policy Polling found Illinois to be, after California, the least liked state in the nation, with only 19 percent of those polled having favorable views of Illinois. I speculate that perceived corruption pulled way down the favorable views of our state.

Corruption affects our business climate as well. In 2011, I took a survey of 70 local economic development directors in Illinois. Three in four respondents said perceptions of corruption had a negative, some said very negative, impact on their business recruiting.

The unavoidable linkages between the Burkes will – indeed already has – become a thorny, even embarrassing matter. For example, last year the Burkes raised $116,000 at a campaign fundraiser in their home for unsuccessful Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle. After Ed Burke’s subsequent indictment, Preckwinkle claimed the fundraiser was really hosted by Anne Burke – but Illinois Supreme Court justices are prohibited from participating in partisan politics.

And possible conflicts of interest in judicial decisions by Justice Burke related to Chicago City Council actions favored by her husband will – already have – come under scrutiny.

While the feds at the U.S. Department of Justice in Chicago work just blocks from the respective offices of the Burkes, they inhabit another planet. They revolve around and are fed by DOJ in D.C. To them, Burke, Madigan and all the rest are but small-time pols. The prosecutors count convictions from high-profile corruption cases to punch their tickets into big-time law firms in Chicago and New York. They won’t play nice, even with Justice Burke.

The post of chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court is largely honorific anyway, and the honor simply rotates among the justices, based on seniority. Yet the symbolism of “Chief Justice” Anne Burke will resonate with journalists covering the trial of husband Ed Burke. It won’t be pretty.

Justice Burke should plead to her fellow justices that she would prefer to focus on the cases before the court and relinquish the administrative chores of “The Chief.” That would limit the damage that would otherwise be done to Illinois and her court.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois. You can read more of Nowlan’s work at jimnowlan.com.

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