Cook County has one of the highest concentrations of openly gay or lesbian judges in the country. This number seems to grow every election cycle. In 2009, 15 Cook County judges who openly identify themselves as gay or lesbian established the Alliance of Illinois Judges. The association is open to all sitting and retired judges but has a primary focus on LGBT issues that affect the judiciary. Despite greater societal acceptance than ever before, the need for creating such a judges association remains important. The mere existence of the Alliance of Illinois Judges (“AIJ”) shows that LGBT people are gaining acceptance in the law. It also informs members of the bench, the bar and the public that diversity matters and is paramount to every kind of justice.
In 1994, the General Assembly passed a bill dividing Cook County into 15 subcircuits to help minority candidates have a better chance at being elected judge.
That year, Judge Tom Chiola was elected from the 8th subcircuit which has a large gay and lesbian population to became the first openly gay judge in the State of Illinois. Two years later he was joined by now Appellate Court Justice Sebastian Patti. A short time later Judge Nancy Katz became the first openly lesbian judge in Illinois. However, it was not until 2001, at the behest of the gay and lesbian judges that the Illinois Supreme Court amended Rule 63 to include “sexual orientation” as a class of persons to be protected from bias or prejudice from judges, court staff and officials, and others subjected to the judge’s direction and control.
Still the number of gay and lesbian judges remained small and did not receive much attention. In 2004, a front page article in Crain’s Chicago reported that, remarkably with little notice, six openly gay or lesbian attorneys had become Circuit Court judges in recent years. While the trend was not limited to Chicago, Chicago figures of gay judges were poised to grow.
Gay and lesbian judges were encouraged that their numbers were growing and that it no longer needed to be front page news that another gay judge was joining the ranks. Discouraged by the disparity of benefits between gay and straight judges, the need to organize seemed apparent. Gay and lesbian judges have diminished benefits and rights as compared to their straight counterparts. Currently, survivor benefits do not exist for gay and lesbian judges. While medical benefits do exist, gay and lesbian judges are taxed on the “imputed value” for those benefits while straight judges are not.
The formation of the AIJ began with informal dinners and discussions regarding issues facing gay and lesbian judges and the LGBT community generally. In June of 2009, the AIJ was formed and held its inaugural reception at the Chicago Bar Association. Over 200 people, mostly members of the judiciary, including Illinois Supreme Court Justices Charles E. Freeman and Anne M. Burke were in attendance. Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans swore in the officers and directors: The Hon. Thomas Chiola, President; Hon. Colleen F. Sheehan, Vice President; Hon. Jim Snyder, Treasurer; Hon. Mary Colleen Roberts, Secretary; Hon Sebastian Patti and Hon. Sheryl Pethers, Directors. On June 23, Judge Jim Snyder will take the helm as President and will be installed along with the new officers at a reception at the Chicago Bar Association.
The mission of the AlJ seeks to promote the administration of justice and to improve the legal profession. (For a complete mission statement see). A primary mission of the AIJ is to promote and encourage respect and unbiased treatment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals as they relate to the judiciary, legal profession and the administration of justice. The mission also seeks to encourage, promote and provide continuing legal education to members of the bench, bar and public. Last October, an outreach session was held at Northwestern Law School for LGBT students from all of the Chicago law schools. Interestingly, these students did not have many of the same “coming out” concerns that many of the judges had when they were in law school. It was an intriguing exchange of dialogue with those who lived through days where membership in a gay and lesbian legal organization was not possible and those who primarily wanted career advise irrespective of their sexual orientation. In the coming year, the AIJ will focus on education and service to the legal community. We hope to sponsor education seminars for attorneys and develop a mentoring program for law students.
Discrimination and prejudice still exists in many forms for LGBT people including judges. Creating diversity in the legal profession should be a practice that means more than token representation of minorities. People with differing world views must be allowed to have positions of influence and power. Not for the purpose to promote any specific agenda but rather to bring different perspectives and talents to enrich the legal profession and to make it more representative of the people it serves.
Despite the advancements of the LGBT community, the painful reality of oppression and prejudice still exists both directly and covertly. All the members of the AIJ have enjoyed a measure of success in both their personal and professional life. Yet each of us has had to navigate through an uneven playing field with varying degrees of fear that opportunities might not be possible merely because of sexual orientation. Even with the visibility of organizations like the AIJ, and the sincere acceptance of straight members of the bench and the bar, there are some highly regarded judges and lawyers who will not come to terms with their being gay or lesbian because of professional or personal rebuke.
Is it then the responsibility of the AIJ to address the second class citizenry of LGBT people? After all, a judge’s first responsibility is to make rulings based on the law and facts of each case. Judges must be fair and unbiased and refrain from making rulings based on personal feelings or politics. Yet change does not happen by operation of law alone. True enough change occurs in capitals and court rooms. It also occurs on television and in the movies. It happens when someone is told his brother is gay. It happens when someone realizes a co-worker is a lesbian. Change happens when there is a “first.” The first gay judge. The first woman governor. The first African American president. It happens when gay and lesbian attorneys are elected based on their qualifications and not excluded because of their sexual orientation. It happens when these judges form an alliance and are genuinely accepted and supported by their colleagues. ■