SPRINGFIELD | The cocaine-induced death of a downstate Illinois judge in March and the arrest last month of a colleague on drug-related charges comes at a time when more attorneys than ever are seeking help for mental health and addiction problems.
According to the most recent annual report of the Illinois Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps find treatment for attorneys, 299 new cases were opened during the most recent fiscal year — the most of any time in the agency’s 32-year history.
Janet Piper Voss, executive director of the assistance program, attributes the increase to a rise in awareness of the program and an acceptance that treatment is a better option that hiding problems.
But, she says, judges are often a different breed.
“They are very concerned about letting anyone know there is a problem,” Voss said. “And, they tend to be more isolated in their work setting."
Joe Christ, 49, had been an associate judge in St. Clair County for less than a month before he died of a cocaine overdose in March. The Illinois State University graduate was a county prosecutor for nearly two decades before his elevation to the bench.
Christ’s body was recovered at a hunting lodge in Pike County owned by the parents of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook, 45, who has since been charged with possessing a weapon while using a controlled substance and misdemeanor possession of heroin.
According to a review of disciplinary action against judges at the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, the behavior of the two men would be considered among the most egregious when compared to cases going back for decades.
Since 1973, there have been 82 cases filed against wayward judges by the inquiry board.
Of them. only one other judge was connected to a drug-related crime.
In October 1996, Cook County Associate Judge Frank Edwards was nabbed for transporting marijuana at an airport in Belize.
A review of inquiry board documents shows 12 judges have been penalized over the past 40 years for allegations of alcohol abuse. Of those, cases against five judges were filed in the past decade.
Other inquiry board findings center on issues ranging from the attempted use of judicial clout to the mistreatment of people in their courtrooms.
In 2006, for example, the board opened an inquiry into Logan County Associate Judge Donald Behle, who was alleged to have dated a woman while presiding over her divorce and child custody case. He also was alleged to have contacted a witness in a case in which he was the presiding judge.
The case was closed in 2007 after Behle resigned from office.
Among the highest profile cases of the inquiry board was the 1997 censure of James Heiple, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Heiple was alleged to have tried to use his position to keep from being charged with a traffic violation.
But, those cases only affected judges that remained in office after they were investigated.
Once a judge leaves office, the inquiry board loses jurisdiction over the case. That means a judge accused of a drug-related crime might not be investigated by the board.
“There could be others because they left (the job,)” said Kathy Twine, executive director of the Judicial Inquiry Board.
Former Sangamon County Associate Judge Philip Schickendanz serves as an example. He resigned in 1990 after being convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and cocaine possession.
He was eventually stripped of his law license by a separate agency, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
In 2012, the ARDC reported that it rendered discipline against 23 attorneys for drug-related problems or mental health issues. None of them was a judge.
The Illinois Lawyers Assistance Program reported that of the nearly 300 cases opened last year, only about nine were judges.
While it is not known why they sought treatment, the program notes that alcohol-related cases account for 83 percent of the referrals. Cocaine represented just 6 percent of the cases.
Former Illinois Appellate Court Justice Warren Wolfson, who now teaches at the DePaul University College of Law, said it can be difficult for judges to seek out help.
“A lot of them are very reluctant to come forward voluntarily. But we don’t have to have them come voluntarily if somebody would come forward who knows about it,” said Wolfson, who sits on the board of directors of the lawyers assistance program.
“Usually its going to take some intervention for them to seek treatment,” Wolfson said. “Most of them have been successful.”
Nationally, the number of judges removed from office remains relatively low.
The American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics said 13 judges were removed from office in 2012 as a result of state disciplinary proceedings.
The center also found 24 judges resigned or retired in lieu of discipline and agreed not to serve in judicial office again.