Operation Greylord bribery case leads to judicial reform

The bright light of a winter morning filters through the courtroom's large, yellowing shades and bounces off young, impassive faces. It shoots between heavy wood benches and settles eventually on the grimy floor and walls. The roar of a Chicago ``el'' train puts a temporary halt to whispered conversations. At 9:42 a.m. a white-shirted deputy sheriff shouts out: ``All rise.'' Judge Abishi Cunningham mounts the bench.

This is Branch 40, a misdemeanor court, a lowly cog in a huge bureaucracy known as Cook County Circuit Court. With 400 judges and some 20,000 lawyers, the system is the largest of its kind in the world. But in the past decade, its distinction has come not from its size but from revelations of judicial corruption.

Nine years into Operation Greylord, one of the longest and most extensive federal undercover investigations, the results of the probe are becoming clear: Greylord is producing the strongest impetus for reform of the system.

In Branch 40 there is no taint of scandal. The court handles misdemeanors, and in the first 41 minutes, Judge Cunningham has called 36 cases involving everything from loitering to prostitution. The pace is numbing. In a few months, the newly appointed Cunningham hopes to move on to a better position. Even here, though, the impact of Greylord is felt.

Greylord has focused ``a lot more attention on the judiciary,'' he says. ``Since November I think I've attended three conferences on ethics.''

Greylord itself is the stuff of novels: lawyers bribing judges, judges fixing cases, FBI agents posing as criminals and crooked attorneys to secretly record conversations. In the narrowest sense, the probe has succeeded, says assistant US attorney Daniel Reidy. ``You have to bring enough pressure that it makes it more difficult to do [funny] business. That's the deterrent impact we hope to convey.''

For example, of the 57 people indicted in Greylord, more than two-thirds have pleaded guilty or been convicted. Seven judges have received prison sentences and more indictments are expected.

More generally, Greylord's impact has been mixed, lawyers and judges say. ``I think there have been some positive effects, kind of like a hurricane coming along,'' says Jerold Solovy, a lawyer and head of a special commission to investigate the causes and effects of Greylord. ``You rebuild the houses better the second time around.''

Adds Circuit Court Judge Brian L. Crowe: ``To a certain extent, it's created a lot more paranoia.''

Hustling of clients by lawyers seems to be on the decline. Cook County Court Watchers Inc., a citizens' watchdog group, has found that more courts are beginning on time and working a full day.

``It's the judge that makes the difference,'' says Juanita Jarard of Court Watchers. On this morning, she is observing the proceedings in Branch 40, specifically how the court treats the public. Many of the defendants don't show up for the proceedings. One woman initially refuses to be fingerprinted on religious grounds, until the judge gently reassures her that the ink can be washed off.

Court observers and Greylord prosecutors admit that the investigation probably has not rooted out corruption in the system. On the other hand, much of Cook County Circuit Court was scandal-free to begin with. ``I look upon this as an aberrational thing rather than a systemic thing,'' says Judge Crowe, who testified in one Greylord case that he refused money that was stuffed in his pocket.

Greylord has boosted public scrutiny, which is producing significant court reform efforts. This week Illinois Gov. James Thompson announced that a new 17-member task force would look into changing the state's method of picking judges. Currently Illinois elects its judges, which forces them to rely on political parties and politicians to get elected, says Frederick J. Sperling, president of the public-interest bar association called the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

Reformers like Mr. Sperling say judges should be picked, rather than elected, a process called merit selection that is currently in place in 35 other states.

``Merit selection is no panacea,'' says Rob Warden, editor of the Chicago Lawyer. But ``anything that shakes up the system would be positive.''

One of the more troubling aspects of the Greylord investigation is how few people stepped forward to volunteer their knowledge of corruption. ``Everyone heard rumors,'' Cunningham says, but never enough to accuse someone of corruption.

``It takes a great deal of courage to step forward,'' says US assistant attorney Reidy. ``There are a great number of people within the system that will excoriate you.''

Some Greylord participants suggest that public apathy about the courts was another factor in the corruption. ``I believe the public does care and feels betrayed,'' Sperling counters. ``We have an opportunity. Whether or not we've turned the corner today ... the jury's still out on that question.''

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