Last year, Sebastian Patti made history when he became the first openly gay individual to be selected to serve the state on the appellate-court level. Patti talked with Windy City Times about being an appellate judge, and shared his thoughts about retiring Cook County Judge Tom Chiola.
Windy City Times: You were appointed to [ the circuit court ] in '95 and ran in '96. Now, you were appointed to the appellate court in '09 and you're running this year. What's different now, aside from the fact that you're at a higher judicial level?
Sebastian Patti: The Earth. I mean that, actually. The shift in our society, as it relates to the LGBT community, has been so great that anybody who was involved in politics in the early-to-mid '90s could not have predicted the kinds of issues that we're addressing in 2010. If somebody had suggested in 1995 that one of the significant legal issues for consideration by the courts would've been gay marriage, I would've said, "You're crazy."
WCT: What do you think is the most pressing issue for the LGBT community right now?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: Marriage is certainly a hugely important topic of discussion within and [ outside ] the community. Having said that, I think there are a number of issues that are hugely important. We are lucky enough to be able to live in a city, county and state that are open to talking about the issues. We are a community that has to deal with other issues that everyone has to deal with: the economy, the U.S. foreign policy as it affects the LGBT community. We are now, in short, becoming mainstream; all the other issues that are important to [ everyone else ] affect us. The difference between now and the 1990s or 1980s is simply being an LGBT person in Chicagothe mere existence is not an issue, in and of itself. There's been a huge paradigm shift, and it's been wonderful to see that shift take place.
WCT: Let's talk about being on the appellate court. How has it been?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: It's ... magic. [ Interviewer laughs. ] Andrew, it's been a completely different profession than being a trial judge.
WCT: How so?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: Well, we only hear appeals. We sit in panels of three judges each. It is as collegial an organization or profession as is the circuit court, but you need to be able to cobble together a majority opinion to dispose of a caseand that takes personal interaction, and takes discussing intellectually legal views with one's colleagues. An ability to deal with one's colleagues at arm's length in addressing specific concerns is hugely important.
WCT: You're running for an election instead of retention? Is that how it is with every election on that level?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: Not necessarily. The [ Illinois ] Supreme Court has the ability to assign people. I had a mixed assignment; I was assigned here as a circuit judge. If I were to unfortunately lose the primary, then I'd go back to the circuit court; I didn't resign that position.
An appellate-court term is 10 years. If I'm elected [ this year ] , I serve for 10 years, and there's a retention election after that.
WCT: What types of cases do you mostly hear? Tort cases? Something else?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: The vast majority of cases that we hear are criminal appeals. But anytime anybody takes an appeal from a trial-court decision in Chicago or Cook County, they come here.
WCT: Are there any types of cases that are harder to decide on this level, since many more are not so cut-and-dried? Is there a different mindset involved on an appellate court?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: Some of them are more complicated than others; some are more straightforward than othersbut you get the whole gamut, soup to nuts. It's everything.
Right now, looking at cases assigned to me, there's a criminal case, a divorce action, an administrative-review appeal from the Chicago Board of Elections, a foreclosure case. There's a wide range of cases represented.
WCT: So what separates you from the other candidates?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: There are five people in my race. I suggest that one measure of a judge's ability comes from bar ratings, reviews and evaluations; I've had nothing but good ones for my entire career. Additionally, I have the advantage that I have an incumbancy of sorts. Andand I say this with all humilitythe fact that the Supreme Court recognized those abilities and put me here suggest that I'm the best candidate in my race.
WCT: Can I get your input regarding judge Tom Chiola, who is retiring?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: He was our trailblazer. He led the way. He made it possible for people who have come after him to step up to the plate, and run for elective office as openly gay and lesbian candidates. He was the first openly gay elected candidate in '94; when he took the bench in December of that year, it was the first step by our community down the path of active engagement in public elections. He is also the first president of the Alliance of Illinois Judges, which is the trade association, if you will, of the judges in the LGBT community, their allies and their friends. And that's something else: I can believe the number of gay and lesbian judges we have nowabout 14 or 15.
WCT: Anything you want to add?
SEBASTIAN PATTI: I do have a difficult race, and I do need the support of the LGBT community all over Cook Countyand that includes Lake Cook Road to Calumet City. It is a formidable race but, having said that, we're a formidable community. I've been lucky enough to garner some significant endorsements, such as the Cook County Democratic Party.
See www.sebastianpatti.com .