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Ed Burke and Anne Burke

Ex-Alderman Ed Burke, right, and his wife, former Illinois State Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, walk toward their home after he was found guilty in a federal corruption trial, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. A majority of the current justices on the state Supreme Court recused themselves from the question of whether Ed Burke should get to keep his law license.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

After most Illinois Supreme Court justices recuse themselves, Ed Burke keeps his law license

An Illinois Supreme Court paralyzed by apparent conflicts of interest is letting former Chicago Ald. Edward Burke keep his law license despite his guilty verdict in an illegal City Hall shakedown scheme designed to enrich his law firm.

A push by the state Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission for an interim suspension of Burke’s law license was sidelined by the court on Feb. 2 because at least four of its seven justices recused themselves from the matter, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times have learned.

The attorney watchdog agency argued the jury’s verdict showed Burke had sullied the legal profession and appeared to be a candidate for disbarment. But now, the court’s inability to act on the ARDC petition spares Burke from the indignity of having the law license he has held since 1968 taken away.

Adding to the oddity of the situation, the lawyer representing Burke says his client no longer even wants the license that was the underpinning of his half-century-plus legal career.

And it’s not clear whether a mechanism exists that would allow the state to touch Burke’s law license.

“It is a most Chicago and most Illinois of absurdities that you have identified,” Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson told WBEZ when asked about the Supreme Court’s surprising incapacity to discipline the former alderman.

Burke’s wife, Anne Burke, served as a Democratic member of the state’s highest court between 2006 and 2022 and was its chief justice for the final three years of her tenure.

There is no public accounting of which justices recused themselves from the Edward Burke matter, or why they felt like they couldn’t take action on the ARDC petition. But four of the court’s justices served alongside his wife.

They are Democrats Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis and Justices P. Scott Neville, Jr. and Republicans David K. Overstreet and Lisa Holder White.

The court’s indecision puts a spotlight on the unique and arguably unprecedented perch of power both Burke and his wife occupied simultaneously during their respective careers in city and state governments.

For years, the former alderman presided over the judicial slate-making process within the Cook County Democratic Party. That role gave him rarified power in shaping Cook County’s judiciary and in promoting which three justices from Cook County should have seats on the Supreme Court.

Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor who once was Chicago’s inspector general, said the court’s hamstrung answer to the call to discipline the former alderman demonstrates the hazard of concentrating so much political power in the hands of one person for such a long time.

“It’s not so much, to me, a flaw in the system as a reflection of what the system is drawn from,” he said. “And it’s drawn from a party political history in which one figure had enormous influence on determining the composition of the court at all levels, all the way up to the Supreme Court where his wife served, and in that, has created a jabberwocky situation.”

The state constitution requires the concurrence of at least four justices to make any decisions by the Supreme Court, and that was cited in the Feb. 2 order opting for inaction that was made public by the clerk of the state’s high court.

“The court does not have the constitutionally mandated quorum necessary under Article VI, section 3 of the Illinois Constitution to render a decision on the petition for interim suspension. Accordingly, no decision will be rendered,” wrote Cynthia Grant, clerk of the Supreme Court.

Court spokesman Christopher Bonjean did not respond to a WBEZ request to identify any of the recused justices or the reasonings behind their recusals but, in brief emailed remarks, noted that the court’s hands were tied.

“I believe some state constitutions allow for substitution of other judges (say from the appellate court) in certain instances,” he told WBEZ, “but the Illinois Constitution does not have a provision for that.”

In late December, Burke was convicted by a federal jury on 13 of 14 counts of racketeering, bribery, and attempted extortion for illegally soliciting and extorting private legal work and other benefits from companies and individuals with business at City Hall.

Less than a month later, the ARDC petitioned the state Supreme Court to suspend Burke’s law license on an interim basis on grounds that he engaged in what court rules characterize as “moral turpitude.”

“In this case, respondent’s conduct clearly meets this court’s definition of moral turpitude and establishes his lack of trustworthiness and fitness as a lawyer,” the ARDC wrote. “This court has previously found that disbarment is warranted for conduct similar to the conduct here.”

Three of the four schemes outlined by prosecutors in Burke’s trial last year revolved around his former law firm, Klafter & Burke. Burke enlisted fellow City Council member Danny Solis in his bid to squeeze business for the firm out of developers who renovated Chicago’s Old Post Office, which sits over the Eisenhower Expressway in Solis’ 25th ward.

It turned out that Solis, who left the Council in 2019, was working undercover for the FBI and recording their conversations. In one chat from August 2016, Burke could be heard telling Solis to “recommend, uh, the good firm of Klafter & Burke to do the tax work” on the Post Office.

Two of the most famous lines from the undercover recordings — in which Burke remarked that the “cash register has not rung yet” and asked Solis “did we land … the tuna?” — referred to Burke’s attempt to get business for Klafter & Burke.

Burke is scheduled to be sentenced on June 24th.

Court rules compel the agency to file another petition for interim suspension of Burke’s law license after his sentencing.

However, it’s possible the Supreme Court again could have too few non-conflicted justices to render judgment on any future disciplinary complaint from the agency.

Burke defense attorney Chris Gair said the ARDC reached out shortly after the December verdict against Burke.

“I told them that Mr. Burke had not practiced law in a number of years, that he was no longer associated with the law firm, and that he would like to retire from the bar permanently,” Gair said.

The ARDC said that wasn’t possible, according to Gair.

“They brought an action,” Gair said. “And the Supreme Court decided they couldn’t rule on it.”

The Burkes’ long and enduring reach into Illinois government, and the way in which their professional careers sometimes intertwined, triggered questions before.

In 2019, WBEZ published an analysis of Supreme Court cases in which Klafter & Burke clients, including scandal-marred Commonwealth Edison, had disputes pending before the state high court. In 10 cases, Justice Burke did not recuse herself from court opinions involving her husband’s clients.

Bonjean, at the time, said Justice Burke was unaware of who her husband’s clients were when they appeared before the court. There was no evidence she deliberately swung cases to benefit her husband’s clientele. One leading legal scholar from Indiana University, nonetheless, characterized her involvement in those cases as “a bit fishy.”

Five years later, with recusals again an issue on the court, other lawyers found guilty of corruption-related charges haven’t continued to be allowed to practice law in Illinois – even as they await sentencing as Burke is.

Former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and one-time company lobbyist Michael McClain both had their law licenses suspended by the Supreme Court until further notice last July. The pair was convicted last May of conspiring to bribe former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to help advance ComEd’s legislative fortunes in Springfield.

Former Chicago Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson was convicted in February 2022 of tax crimes and making false statements to federal bank regulators related to the collapse of Washington Federal Bank for Savings. A month later, the Supreme Court approved an interim suspension of Thompson’s law license.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had his law license suspended in 2011, months after being convicted of wire fraud, extortion and bribery. The Supreme Court disbarred Blagojevich in 2020.

That somehow Burke hasn’t yet suffered the same professional disrepute of losing his law license – with a Supreme Court still influenced by the power he and his wife once wielded – is proof to Ferguson of a bigger problem.

“His case breaks a system that otherwise might be regarded as orderly and standard-based,” he said.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ and was the Chicago-Sun-Times’ longtime Springfield bureau chief. Jon Seidel covers federal courts for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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