Editorial: Memo to Illinois judges: When the defendant is a politician, speed things up

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Here’s a modest proposal for Illinois judges: When the accused is an elected official, move more quickly to a trial date.

Yes, we know the wheels of justice grind slowly, especially given the pandemic backlog. And it’s true that all criminal defendants (and their victims) deserve a speedy but fair trial. But two recent examples suggest that time is yet more of the essence when it comes to accused politicians.

Take, for example, the case of Ald. Ed Burke, 14th. His racketeering trial is not set to take place until Nov. 6, 2023, a delay caused by the busy schedules of the attorneys involved. That date, a stunning four-and-a-half years after Burke’s May 2019 indictment, comes after the date when Burke will stand for reelection.

We’ve argued that Burke (who has pleaded not guilty) should think about his ward and the city as a whole and step aside while he prepares for his trial, advice that, at the time of writing, he has not yet taken. Clearly, though, the egregiously long delay is unfair on voters who may find themselves in the impossible position of not wanting to support a candidate who has been accused of being corrupt while at the same time not wanting to prejudge an innocent man. In this case, public interest should be deemed more important than attorney convenience.

The same applies to the upcoming trial of former House Speaker Mike Madigan. Madigan’s trial is also not coming until 2023 or maybe even 2024. The judge has set Feb. 1 as the deadline for pretrial motions and the full case likely will start months later than that. And, as the Tribune reported this week, that means Madigan is entitled for that period to not just his regular Illinois pension but also to the bump that goes to lawmakers of more than 20 years standing, replete with an annual increase. He is getting $12,400 a month from the state; an amount that would be reduced if Madigan was found guilty of misconduct related to his office.

If Madigan is innocent, and innocence must be presumed, that pension is valid. If he is found guilty, taxpayers would be right to conclude they had been bilked. Again.

Unlike Burke, Madigan is not running for anything during this delay, but the pension issue is a matter of public concern with both fiscal and symbolic weight. Here again, attorneys argued for extra time and the judge doled it out. But that generosity comes with a clear public cost.

Both of these men are entitled to their day in court. And the people of Illinois are entitled to that day arriving as expeditiously as possible. The limbo of delay — at a level that goes beyond reasonable preparatory time — does not serve either the public or the private interest.

Judges need to toughen up with attorneys and remind them that more is at stake than their schedules.

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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August 4, 2022 at 06:18PM

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