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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:00 am

The judge

JOHN PHILLIP SCHMIDT: Jan. 8, 1965 - Dec. 19, 2017


In courtroom wells, they called him judge, or your honor. In casual conversation, it was Schmidy, a man who rarely lost a case and never an election.

John Schmidt grew up in Springfield, played center for the Lanphier football team and once figured on becoming a pilot. But, at some point in high school, his lack of math skills apparent, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer.

J. William Roberts was Sangamon County state’s attorney when he got a call in the 1980s from Harold Vose, who was regional superintendent of schools. Could he help the son of Phillip Schmidt, principal at Lanphier?

“I said ‘Sure, I’ll give Phil Schmidt’s son an internship,” Roberts recalled. Less than a week into the summer internship, Roberts became U.S. attorney. He brought along Schmidt, who was then getting ready for his senior year at Western Illinois University. “He was on the football team at Western, and I think he could have been a pretty good Division One football player,” Roberts said. “But he dropped out of football to concentrate on his studies. I think this was just the way John was. He was a serious student.”

When Schmidt graduated from Tulsa School of Law, Roberts hired him as an assistant U.S. attorney, a job that ended soon after a Democrat was elected president and Roberts took a job as chief counsel to Gov. Jim Edgars. Schmidt moved to the state’s attorney’s office. Three years later, at 30, he was named first assistant state’s attorney, putting him in day-to-day charge of 26 prosecutors and on track to become the next state’s attorney.

Former Sangamon County state’s attorney Patrick Kelley, who hired Schmidt, says that he could be stern in a way that swayed juries.

“He was very teutonic,” recalls Kelley, who is now a retired Sangamon County circuit court judge. “My nickname for him was Herr Schmidt. I’d say ‘Put Herr Schmidt on the case.’ He was a tough prosecutor. Underneath that, he was a very kind person.”

Outside work, Schmidt bicycled with Kelley and two or three other colleagues from the prosecutor’s office, gathering on mornings while it was still getting light and covering 25 miles or so before officially starting their days. In 1998, he completed the Ironhorse Triathlon, swimming 1 ½ miles in Lake Springfield, then cycling for 45 miles before finishing up with a 10-mile run. At work, Schmidt handled some of the biggest cases.

After becoming state’s attorney when Kelley rose to the bench, Schmidt in 2002 prosecuted Mark Winger, who was convicted of murdering his wife and a St. Louis airport shuttle driver in 1995. The case, which attracted nationwide attention, was reopened years after the fact when Winger sued the shuttle company and a woman told lawyers for the company that she’d been having an affair with him. A blood-spatter expert retained by the company opined that the killings could not have happened as Winger, who had said that his wife was being attacked by the driver, had claimed. The case became an issue when Schmidt, after being appointed state’s attorney, ran to keep his job in 2000, with challenger Tom Londrigan saying that the county needed to use forensic pathologists certified as experts to investigate homicides. Schmidt, who had been criticized by the dead woman’s family for not filing charges faster, played down the pressure-cooker aspect after the guilty verdict.

“When you’re doing a first-degree murder case, where someone has always suffered a great loss, they are all difficult,” Schmidt told the State Journal-Register when asked how the case ranked in terms of his most challenging. “You can’t put them in degrees.”

Without naming cases, Roberts, who considered himself a professional and political mentor for Schmidt, said that he didn’t duck the tough ones. “I finally asked him: ‘John, you are running for office. Do you have to take every controversial case?’” Roberts recalls. “He said it was just his turn, and that’s the way it was. There were several of them. I just remember thinking, ‘John, you’re a heckuva guy.’ Many judges I know, and have known, have not wanted the spotlight of a controversial case in an election year.”

In 2011, after his appointment to the circuit bench and with an election looming, Schmidt ruled against Catholic Charities after the charity sued the state for terminating contracts to provide foster care and adoption services on the grounds that the organization discriminated against gay people who sought to become parents. Schmidt was right on the law, but wrong on the politics in a heavily Catholic area he would need to keep his job, but it didn’t matter in the end. He was elected by a wide margin.

Roberts headed Schmidt’s election committees and stayed in near-constant touch, both during and after campaigns. But Schmidt wasn’t a tool. When the position of first assistant state’s attorney came open in 2007, Schmidt chose John Milhiser, who wasn’t Roberts’ guy.

“I didn’t know John Milhiser,” Roberts recalls. “I had my candidate. Schmidy said, ‘I really like this Milhiser, I think he’s the best one for the job.’ We went back and forth for awhile. He was right, by the way.”

Milhiser, who had left the state’s attorney’s office to enter private practice before Schmidt brought him back a decade ago, said that not many lawyers who worked with Schmidt remain in the office, but he is nonetheless remembered by employees who aren’t attorneys. “John had a great sense of humor – he could oftentimes have a very self-deprecating sense of humor,” Milhiser said. “I think it’s evident in the sadness in the state’s attorney’s office, how much he will be missed. He was genuine. He genuinely cared about other people.”

Schmidt was named an appellate court judge this year and only recently began his duties. As an appointee, he faced the prospect of an election next year, but no one filed against him. And so he was free to be a judge without being a politician.

“I talked to him four or five days before he died,” Roberts says. “He was so pleased to have been appointed to the appellate court and not have an opponent.”

Roberts said that he called Schmidt seeking advice, for a friend, from the man whom he’d brought up in legal circles. “Then we talked for a long time,” Roberts recalls. The conversation included updates on Schmidt’s son John, who plays in the band at Sacred Heart Griffin. The judge was known for attending performances.

“You couldn’t be around John and not know of his love for his son and his wife,” Roberts said. Schmidt, whose death has been attributed to cardiovascular troubles by the Sangamon County coroner’s office, mentioned that he hadn’t been feeling well and blamed bronchitis. He talked about getting on a health kick.

“It’s stunning – it’s shocking,” Roberts said. “The big smile and the big guy. It’s just hard to perceive a world with John not being a part of it.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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