Circuit Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, a candidate for the Appellate Court ( Burke vacancy ) believes she can bring a fresh perspective to the bench.
Windy City Times spoke with Coleman, who, with 23 years of legal experience behind her belt, thinks she can bring to the table what she believes the Appellate Court is currently lacking: sensitivity and 'global' experience. Coleman, after many years working as an Assistant State's Attorney and Assistant U.S. Attorney, was elected as a Cook County Circuit Court judge in 1996. She has spent nine years presiding over civil jury trials in the law division after two years hearing cases in the child-protection division. Also, for the past 10 years, she has taught new judges ethics and conduct, and was rated as 'Highly Qualified' by the Lesbian Gay Bar Association of Chicago.
Windy City Times: Can you let our voters know a little bit more about your experience over the years, and what you can bring to the bench that you think your opponents can't?
Sharon Johnson Coleman: I started out at the State's Attorney's Office in the appellate division. I was there for almost two years, and that was by choice. That's a long time for a state's attorney. I got a lot of experience both writing appellate briefs, arguing appellate briefs before the Illinois public court and, then at the age of 25, I argued before the Illinois Supreme Court—my first of several arguments. … I've argued at least four times before the Illinois Supreme Court. … I have actual appellate experience on the other side of the bench, and I don't think anybody else who is running has that.
I have also argued before the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals—so, that's unique. I think I'd be able to give a different perspective, which I think is important. The Appellate Court is only 24 people, and charged with being required to hear every appeal that comes before the bench, I think it's necessary to have a diverse experience, even from that standpoint. … I'm almost 12 years on the Circuit Court, and I've had nine years in the law division, which is one of the most complex senior divisions in the system. I was placed here … because [ former ] Chief Judge Donald O'Connell … thought I could bring trial experience, supervisory experience and even sensitivity from a different perspective to the jury system. I think I have.
I've been so fortunate to have all these experiences. I'm not saying I earned them, but sometimes fortune plays a bit of a role, too. I could just sit back and say, 'Okay, I've reached this pinnacle.' All I have to do is clock in and sit here and coast it out, but that would be wrong. If I've been given all these opportunities, shouldn't I try to use them in a different manner if the opportunity presents itself? I would say that is what distinguishes me. I'm not seeing the appellate court as a right. I'm not just seeing it as a next stepping stone. I'm seeing it as I've been given all this trial and judicial experience, and isn't that something we need on the appellate court?
WCT: And you think you can bring a fresh perspective?
SJC: More of a global perspective, and particularly in the area of juvenile court. With my experience on the parental terminations and child abuse cases—those cases have to be turned around quickly because children's lives are affected, and generally appellate court cases are not. Again, there is not one judge on the Appellate Court who has juvenile experience. When they are hearing these cases in a vacuum, and they haven't really been in the trenches there, it makes a huge difference. … Children's lives are being impacted and even the fact that I'm a mother, not only of a young adult, but I'm also the mother of a young child. I can give the perspective that not many appellate justices can give. Shouldn't we have a balance of people on the court that can bring that?
WCT: Diversity on the bench is so important.
SJC: And in so many ways, from ethnicity and gender, but then you have diversity of actual experience. When you only have 24 people, and this is the last stop for the 94 percent of cases that are appealed, then you got to get it right. Sometimes you read opinions, and you say, 'What were they thinking?' My HIV case is a real example of that. That was the trial where I had a young man who was misdiagnosed as having HIV in the early '90s, when that was an automatic death sentence. For 18 months, he thought he had HIV. His mother died thinking he had it. He was from a poor neighborhood in Englewood. What happened during the trial was he said he was from a rough neighborhood and escaped, but decided [ he ] would rather go out as a gangbanger with all [ his ] friends, then to go out suffering from AIDS. … His job was gone. He had a college education, but he went back to the streets. … Fortunately, that didn't happen to him before they found out he was not HIV positive.
Then the insurance company said, 'No harm, no foul,' and they didn't want to pay him a penny. They went to trial and they ended up getting $275,000. I wouldn't let them dirty him up with disorderly conduct from other stuff that he had. Then it went to appeal, and the Appellate Court, in a 2-1 decision ( the majority was included with my opponent, Alan Greiman ) , said there was no compensable injury here. … The Supreme Court denied the petition to appeal and sent it back to the appellate court and said to fix it. They haven't done a rehearing. My guess they are trying to wait until after the election. That's the kind of case where maybe if you had someone who is a little more in tune to what was going on—how could you say something like this is not an injury? The emotional distress, the taking of drugs that are not yours, you know? … Again, its that kind of thing that says we need diversity. There is not guarantee, but at least you get a hearing that is global, and not just one-sided.
WCT: When did you decide being a judge was something you wanted to do?
SJC: I was 13 in civics class. We had to do a project on a career. Both my parents were teachers, and I didn't want to be a teacher but I wanted to help children. I saw this picture that said 'Juvenile Court Judge,' and it actually had a women. I knew no lawyers, no judges, nobody in my family. My parents were the first to even go to college, and they're teachers. I decided that's what I wanted to be. I never swayed from public service and the law. It's been ever since for me. Gosh, can you image when not only I get sworn in, but my first assignment was to juvenile court? That was a pretty emotional day.
WCT: What kind of qualities do you think you've been bringing to the bench that others might not have?
SJC: First of all, energy. I'm very, very busy outside of work, but when I get out there, I've got energy. I'm interested in what the lawyers bring. I research everything. … When a lawyer presents an argument, … I listen carefully to what they have to say. I just try to always think about how it would be if I was on the other side of the bench. That way, I can treat everybody with respect and make sure everyone is treated with respect in my courtroom. I might even add what others might feel is a little bit slang or informality, but it's more trying to make people feel comfortable. I require respect.
I would also say the trial experience. I know what it is like to be a lawyer in almost every courtroom. If I know that, then I'm in tune to what people are thinking.
Also, empathy and fairness. In juvenile court, some people call out the deputies because some parent is going ballistic that you are taking their child. Well, excuse me, but that's upsetting. If someone is so numbed to the fact that we are taking their child, then we have an issue. … I don't need the deputies. If someone cursed me out, just let them sit down and calm down for a little bit. They don't need to be held in contempt or put in jail. Let's not make the situation worse. People think I'm a little easy-going, but I'm in control. Maybe that's the [ maternal ] part of me.
… I also teach judges. I've been teaching all the judges for the last 10 years conduct and ethics.
WCT: How did you get into that?
SJC: … [ Former Chief Judge Donald ] O'Connell came up with the idea that they needed a young judge that could relate to the new ones that were coming up. That's why they first started with me. … It was great, because I could do and say things they [ the male judges ] couldn't say, particularly with the women, like telling the women judges not to overcompensate. Don't feel like you have to be that over-the-top tough or you have to focus on things that really don't matter just so you can control the courtroom. I still get it now. You are going to get the sexist comment or the condescending comment. … You are going to have to remember that you have the last word.
It's just a way to talk to the new judges and make sure we do diversity training. … We talk about being sensitive to how you are addressing people. If you have some innate prejudices, and we all do, don't let that spill over. You can't do it. You have to be sensitive to what other people might be doing, presumptions that are being made. Like with foster parents in my courtroom. I have all kinds, whether they are grandparents … or it's a gay couple and they are being foster parents to this kid and I haven't seen the kid happier. What is the issue here? We don't have an issue here; we have a child who has a safe family. The child's best interest is with this family. You have to be able to look at each situation for what it is and bring in your outside knowledge or openness. Just keep an open mind.
WCT: What are some significant legal issues affecting gays and lesbians today?
SJC: … First of all, gays and lesbians have the same issues as everybody else. When they come into court, it is rare, unless you have a discrimination case, which is usually federal court, that it is a gay and lesbian issue. What is significant is how gays and lesbians are treated in court. Again, due to this diversity training, if a person is apt not to respect a person because they think they are gay—usually its not something that is told to them—they think they are, and they are basing that on stereotypes. What is making you think they are? When did everyone start wearing something on their forehead to tell you? My first great niece why would you even know when you look at her, unless you get to know her? I would say [ issues are ] the credibility, the respect, and … making condescending remarks about gays and lesbians without knowing what you're saying. Sometimes you don't even know. … That's one of the biggest problems and the hurdles to jump. Still, for the most part, the legal profession is white and heterosexual males. Its slowly changing, but we've got so many layers to go further. The judiciary has to understand that there isn't a gay issue. It's the way you treat people. And I think the judge sets the tone.
Learn more about Sharon Johnson Coleman at www.electcoleman.com .