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Wednesday, May 1, 2013 05:34 am

Courting favor

Court reporters question handling of cases

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On the night of Dec. 7, 2011, a Southern View police officer saw a vehicle run a stop sign and then belatedly stop in the middle of the road, right in front of his cruiser.  

The officer pulled the driver over and noticed a smell of alcoholic beverages and the driver’s bloodshot eyes. The driver, Blake Samat of Springfield, then 24 years old, admitted to drinking that night and refused a breath test, according to the officer’s sworn statement. Samat was arrested on the spot.

Nearly a year later, after six continuations, Samat’s DUI case was dismissed by a Sangamon County judge, and Samat instead paid a $500 fine for disregarding a stop sign.

Blake’s mother, Beth Samat, works as court reporter for Sangamon County Chief Judge Leslie Graves. It’s one of several cases documented by two former court reporters warning of possible conflicts of interest by judges in Sangamon County.

Chief Judge Graves says she and her fellow judges take conflicts of interest very seriously.

“I feel very comfortable with the way the judges in this circuit handle their conflicts,” Graves said. “My clerk comes up weekly with a stack of reassignments. That’s very important to us.”

Robbin Sterr and Lynn Ruppert both worked as court reporters in the Sangamon County Courthouse for several years. Ruppert is retired, while Sterr says she was fired for reporting an incident of theft by a co-worker. Spurred by their experiences in the courthouse, Sterr researched more than 100 cases in which Sangamon County judges presided over cases that involve judges’ family members, judges’ co-workers and family of judges’ co-workers.

Sterr and Ruppert believe cases like Blake Samat’s dismissed DUI violate the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct, which calls on judges to avoid “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” The two former court reporters believe cases involving someone with a connection to a judge should be transferred to other circuits.

Some Sangamon County cases involving judges’ family members, co-workers or family of co-workers are referred to a judge from a different county or even a different judicial circuit, but that doesn’t happen automatically. The Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct advises judges to remove themselves from cases in which they may have a conflict of interest, but there aren’t specific rules saying which cases a judge can and cannot take. As a result, an unscrupulous judge could conceivably do favors for friends, family and co-workers if no one objects. Judges are subject to the scrutiny of the Judicial Inquiry Board and other entities within the court system as a guard against abuse of power, but those groups typically don’t become involved unless someone makes a complaint about a specific case.

In one case highlighted by Sterr and Ruppert, Brittany Kasper, daughter of court reporter Nancy Kitchen, was sentenced to six months of supervision in July 2010 for speeding 15-20mph over the limit. Three months later – still within Kasper’s previous period of supervision – she got another speeding ticket and again received supervision. Kasper was 18 at the time of her second ticket, and under state law, a driver under the age of 21 who commits two speeding violations within 24 months can have his or her license suspended.

Most of the cases reviewed by Illinois Times involve minor violations like speeding tickets, but some, like Blake Samat’s 2011 DUI case, involve serious crimes being dismissed in the courtroom.

Robbin Sterr says she sent letters of complaint regarding the alleged conflicts of interest to Michael Tardy, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, as well as Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Kilbride. Sterr says she has not received a response. Tardy did not respond to a request from Illinois Times seeking comment. Joe Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court, said the Judicial Inquiry Board and Illinois Courts Commission - not the state's highest court - are tasked with investigating alleged judicial wrongdoing.

Sangamon County Chief Judge Leslie Graves says Springfield is a “big little city,” explaining that judges routinely handle cases in which they know one or more people. Judges may have practiced law with one of the lawyers arguing before the court, they may attend religious services together, or they may have some other connection.

“It happens; it’s Springfield,” Graves said. “You have to follow your conscience and your gut. When you sit there, you have to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you knew my father. It will not affect my decision. If you don’t like it, appeal it.’ ”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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