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POLITICS Michael Forti becomes newest openly gay Cook County Judge
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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The Illinois Supreme Court appointed Michael A. Forti to the 8th Subcircuit vacancy recently created by the passing of Justice Laura Cha-yu Liu, making Forti the latest member of the LGBT community who is now a Cook County judge.

Forti's appointment became effective Sept. 30 and ends Dec. 3, 2018. He ran in 2012, but lost to Jessica O'Brien.

Forti recently talked with Windy City Times about the appointment, LGBT issues and hypothetical cases.

Windy City Times: What do you feel is duty, first and foremost, as a judge?

Michael Forti: Well, the area that I've been assigned—like most judges—is in the municipal district. I assume we'll be handling traffic matters in circuit court, and that's where I'll begin my substanative assignment.

WCT: You were deputy corporation counsel for the city of Chicago for 14 years. Give me some idea of what you handled there.

Forti: It was a very, very interesting job. I served first as a chief and then a deputy for a division that changed its name many times, but I think the best way to describe it was as a division that handled complex litigation—and some of the most interesting cases involved the Constitution.

So there were individuals who challenged city ordinances, alleging constitutional violations—those cases came to us. And some of the most interesting—one of which went to the U.S. Supreme Court—[involved] defending the city's gun ordinance. So we were at the forefront of addressing Second Amendment concerns, and the U.S. Supreme Court found there was an individual right, pursuant to that amendment.

I was fortunate enough to have some great bosses during the time I was there, and we worked on cases involving redistricting challenges to the closure of Meigs Field, so it was very exciting.

WCT: Did you deal with police-misconduct cases?

Forti: My division touched on that, but we were primarily focused on other constitutional matters. There was a separate division that was formed that handled those cases, which are very challenging. I think people are overwhelmed—that is, they've had tremendous case loads. However, that's no excuse for not being on top of your cases, but I empathize with some of those folks.

WCT: You also were chief counsel for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which would seem to be a nice segue for what you'll do as a judge.

Forti: Well, that was probably the most interesting and challenging job I've ever had. Coming from Chicago, having gone to Northwestern for law school and having lived in East Lake View and having worked for the city, many of us end up thinking that the entire state is synonymous with Chicago. But there is a big, big state south of [Interstate] 355.

Working in Chicago and Springfield was the breadth of Illinois, and I came to appreciate that. I helped that I'm originally from St. Louis, so I was familiar with the east side of downstate Illinois. That job was fascinating because I was really responsible for all of the legal issues, on some level, for the department. And at that time, under Gov. Quinn's leadership, the department was very active, whether it be high-speed rails, improvements in the railway system or dealing with the highway system. It was a very exciting time to be in IDOT.

WCT: Moving back to your judicial post, how did you find out you'd be appointed?

Forti: I had been in discussions with [Supreme Court Justice Charles] Freeman, and I needed my evaluations by the various boards to be updated. I was confidant I'd be found qualified; at the end of the day, I was actually traveling on the bus when I got the good news. This, of course, is something that I've wanted to do for many years. This is the culmination for a more-than-five-year journey.

WCT: What do you think of election of judges, versus appointment?

Forti: As a policy matter, I think it's a very interesting question—and I know that Illinois is different from other jurisdictions in terms of elections versus appointments. I think, in the end, it's best to look at Illinois as somewhat of a hybrid system—so appointments fill vacancies, but ultimately anyone who is appointed to the circuit court must run on their own.

I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Some understandably [ask] if we're getting the most qualified in elections when the electorate may not be familiar with judges. On the other hand, people say perhaps the appointment system is best—but then, you may question who is making the appointments and if there are political agendas to that. So, at this moment, this hybrid system works. I'm honored to be appointed, but I'll have to prove to voters in 2018 that I'm worthy of remaining in my position.

WCT: I received an email this very morning from Lambda Legal about a report, "Justice out of Balance," that discusses the lack of LGBT judges throughout the country, among other things. On finding, for example, said there are only two transgender and zero openly bi judges in the United States. What, in your opinion, can be done to increase the number of LGBT judges?

Forti: That's a really good question.

I recognize that when I was thinking about my run in 2012 and this journey, there have been great strides with the LGBT community—with marriage equality being the most prominent—but that, in the legal profession, some of those issues have been lagging. For example, even though I greatly admire [current Cook County Judge] Sebastian Patti and [former Cook County Judge] Tom Chiola, they are back in the '90s—that's 20 years ago. I can't think of many judicial appointments in the Eighth Subcircuit of LGBT individuals, so I'm honored that it's time for a qualified LGBT candidate to be appointed.

Now, fortunately though, in the Eighth, there are several judges who have been elected, and I count those individuals as my colleagues. Judge Ehrlich is someone I've worked with, and he ran and won, so I think the Eighth is open to electing openly gay candidates. I encourage lawyers who are openly LGBT to go into the law and seek out appointments, because we are lagging in that area. Being qualified is the number-one criterion, but it's a bonus if you bring a different perspective—and I think LGBT judges do that.

WCT: Here's a hypothetical: If you, as a judge, could've sat on any case throughout history, which one would it be?

Forti: [Smiles] That's a really tough question. I think one that comes to mind, around the time I was born, was the Supreme Court decision in [Brown v.] Board of Education; that was a critical case that changed the trajectory of the country. I also believe that Thurgood Marshall was one of the lawyers on that case, and seeing him as a practicing attorney would be very interesting.

I think Loving v. Virginia would be very interesting. The movie [Loving] was at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it did very well. That case, too, was the precursor for those who advocated for marriage equality for the LGBT community.

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