Thomas R. Fitzgerald, Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, said he was proud of how the Illinois State Senate handled the impeachment trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Fitzgerald, who delivered the Rudolf G. Schade Lecture on Oct. 2 at the Frick Center, became the first became the first Illinois chief justice to preside over the impeachment trial of a sitting governor when he opened the January proceedings. Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama and faces federal corruption charges.
“The first chance I had to address the senators, I reminded them that this was a solemn and serious business we were about and that it should be treated that way,” Fitzgerald said. “I was impressed with how seriously those senators treated their duties.”
In his talk, Fitzgerald called on lawyers and judges to “create a culture of morality within our profession” to maintain public confidence in the legal system and said educating attorneys about ethics and values was crucial to eliminating corruption. He outlined ways the Illinois Supreme Court has promoted ethical behavior, including a lawyer-mentoring program that pairs newly admitted attorneys with veteran lawyers, and a change in registration rules that aims to focus lawyers’ attention on public service and pro bono work.
“Rooting out corruption can be done after the fact, by federal prosecutors,” he said. “Or we can end corruption before it begins, through education.”
The son a Circuit Court judge, Fitzgerald was elected to the Supreme Court in 2000 and began his three-year term as chief justice in 2008. A graduate of Loyola University and John Marshall Law School, he began his legal career in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and was first elected to the bench as a Circuit Court judge in 1976.
In an interview before the lecture, Fitzgerald noted that it was 25 years ago that the first convictions came in the now-infamous Operation Greylord investigation of judicial corruption. Fitzgerald said that case, which resulted in dozens of convictions of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers made him wonder at the time how the offenders “could have so violated the public’s trust.”
“What they lacked was a commitment to doing what was right,” he said. “All of us in government have to do everything in our power to convince people that doing it on the square is the right way to do it. We can’t tolerate a system where judges are doers of bad deeds.”
Educating young attorneys about ethics and professional values “can ensure that the public’s confidence in an independent judiciary stays strong,” Fitzgerald said. He urged a “spirit of selfless public service” and said that providing pro bono legal services to the poor should be “a part of every lawyer’s career.” Fitzgerald in 2007 helped launch an initiative to provide free legal services to Illinois veterans and their families.
He told students in the audience: “Make a renewed and deeply felt pledge in your own hearts to act always with honest, integrity and decency. Without these things, wealth and professional advancement mean nothing.”
By Andrew Santella