Chicago's reformers won a victory last week. In an important case, a federal jury convicted a Cook County Circuit Court judge of fixing cases in exchange for bribes. Of 27 counts of racketeering, extortion, and mail fraud charged against him, Associate Judge John M. Murphy was found guilty of 24.
The finding involves several firsts.
It is the first time a sitting Illinois judge has been found guilty of judicial wrongdoing. It is the first conviction of a judge in a controversial federal probe into corruption in the Cook County Circuit Court. The court, whose jurisdiction includes Chicago, is the largest trial system in the country.
According to George Galland Jr., president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the probe, code-named Operation Greylord, ''is absolutely the most important thing that's ever been done to rid the court system in a large city of corruption.''
The verdict against Judge Murphy is sure to influence the cases of three more judges and 13 others also charged in Greylord, observers say, and will probably lead to more indictments.
In one of the more bizarre twists in the Murphy case, the government's star witness implicated his own cousin, Judge Richard F. LeFevour, in the case-fixing scheme. Judge LeFevour had not been indicted in Greylord as of this writing, but it was announced that he would step down from his post as presiding judge of the First Municipal District until his name is cleared.
What is not clear is how well reformers will be able to capitalize on Greylord.
Currently, all but the state's associate circuit court judges are elected to office by voters. Many observers charge that some judges are subject to political manipulation because the political party in control can deliver the votes to elect them.
This ''is an extremely rewarding form of patronage,'' Mr. Galland says, and could allow, say, an alderman to make sure such a judge would rule favorably in a case involving a crony.
While the Greylord investigation does not directly touch on such political corruption, ''the professional politicians are worried,'' says Leon M. Despres, a Chicago lawyer.
For years reformers have urged that Illinois replace judgeship elections with a system of appointments. And some observers hope that voters will be so upset with the findings of Greylord that they will demand a change in the way judges are picked.
''I think it will eventually come,'' Galland says. But ''I'm not going to hold my breath. . . . The defenders of that (current) system are very resourceful and powerful.''
The problem is that voter revulsion may come too early, judges and lawyers say.
''The image of the system has been badly tarnished by the publicity so far,'' says Louis B. Garippo, a defense lawyer and former Cook County Circuit Court judge.
Every six years the state's top trial judges come before Illinois voters for retention. The judges must get at least a 60 percent approval rating of the votes cast.
No judge received more than about 78 percent approval in the last election, says Judge David Shields, chairman of this year's retention slate, and the number of disenchanted voters consistently voting ''no'' has been growing in recent years. This November, 36 trial judges in Cook County will come up for approval, he says, perhaps the second-largest total ever at one time.
The three-year investigation - a so-called ''sting operation,'' where FBI agents posed as crooked lawyers, cooked up phony cases, and bugged judges' chambers - has itself raised a host of legal questions.
''It has had a chilling effect on some judges,'' says Sam Adam, a defense lawyer. Some judges are letting more cases go to juries to avoid being accused of corruption, he says.
Rob Warden, editor of the Chicago Lawyer monthly, accuses federal authorities of unduly stretching their jurisdiction in Greylord.
And the US Congress has begun to take a look at whether there should be legal guidelines to determine when federal sting operations are allowable. One measure would set higher standards for investigating cases involving such groups as religious and news media organizations. Monroe Freedman, a law professor at the Hofstra University law school in Hempstead, N.Y., says some cases involving judges and lawyers also deserve close scrutiny.