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Deratany Seeks Judicial Post

This article shared 1584 times since Wed Dec 17, 2003
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Jay Paul Deratany is among four openly gay or lesbian candidates running for the 8th Subcircuit along Chicago's North Lakefront. In recent weeks, Windy City Times has profiled the other gays running, and what follows are excerpts from Deratany's interview.

WCT: Let's start with some of your non-legal background.

Deratany: Going back to about the mid or late 1980s, when some people who had AIDS were unfortunately dying relatively quickly, I was called by AIDS Legal Council to write wills as one of their volunteer lawyers. I remember that as probably one of the most profound experiences, because you really were dealing with people who were on their deathbed. I would go into a home, and the heat was cranked up because, you know, they'd be very cold at that time, and write out what their last will was.

WCT: How did ALC know that was something you would do?

Deratany: I'd called them.

WCT: You were at a private firm? They did not have a problem with that?

Deratany: Yes. I mostly did that after hours, and on my own time. My law firm wasn't easy about any pro bono—they worked me pretty hard.

WCT: Were you out?

Deratany: I really struggled. Because in the legal community, especially as trial lawyers, there's still so much of the old boys' club. ... And that's one of the reasons why I want to become a judge. I think there's still a predominance of the straight white male in our judiciary. And I didn't want to alienate clients, and I didn't want to lose clients, so even when I went out on my own at first, I didn't hide it, but I didn't go forward and state anything. I think it was only in the early '90s, when I opened my own law firm, that I started advertising and it became clear to all who wanted to know, and I was involved in different gay organizations, CPNA, and quite a few different gay organizations.

WCT: When did you become involved with Bailiwick Theatre?

Deratany: I joined the board about two years ago. And I became vice president last year. In terms of my volunteer work, non-legal, I've done a lot of work with homeless teenagers and homeless adults, but specifically with homeless teenagers through Neon Street, which is a division of Travelers and Immigrants Aid. And a lot of those kids were gay, some weren't. Some were prostituting, that were not gay. But what I tried to do with those kids was give them some confidence by counseling, that sort of thing, and by doing the GED education training. I know at least—it was very difficult, but I know with at least one young woman, I finally succeeded and I believe she got her GED. I even had to talk one kid out of—he had some sort of spray paint thing, and he lit it on fire, and was going towards me and the curtains. And I don't think he was a threat, but I just had to calm him down.

WCT: When did you start your own firm?

Deratany: I started my law firm in 1991. The firm is myself, my law partner, and one associate. So it's a small three- or four-person firm at any one time.

WCT: Your resume says you have won or settled more than 1,000 cases?

Deratany: You've got to remember, we've had everything from small auto cases, where we make some phone calls and settle it, to the involved cases where we've been working three, four years. I'm particularly proud of what I've done for the elderly, and also, not only the gay community, but legally-wise, the things I've done for people with disabilities. I think as gay men and women, we need to—we're at a point in our society where we need to reach beyond our own needs, and show what we can do in society. And that's what I've always, hopefully, tried to do. So I haven't just worked in the gay community. I'm a strong advocate against homelessness, and I'm a strong advocate for individuals with disabilities.

WCT: I notice lawsuits you have won on elderly abuse cases. How does that experience translate to what you want to do as a judge?

Deratany: I can tell you that I'm the only candidate who's won multi-million dollar verdicts against corporations. And I continue to work—on a pro bono aspect and a professional aspect—I've worked for the individual. And I think it's important, because oftentimes, when I'm in court—not all the time, there's obviously some terrific judges—but sometimes when I'm in court I've seen, I'm seeing judges who do have bias, who do have prejudices against individuals who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder, who are not dressed as well, who are Black or Hispanic, who are gay, or lesbian. And maybe it's not stated, but you can tell by the demeanor, the way they hold themselves, and that gets conveyed to a jury. And that's one of my motivating factors in running for judge. I think I'm uniquely qualified in that I have tried so many cases, and I have been on the front lines of trial work. My work on a case involving elderly individuals who are abused in nursing homes—specifically the one case, though I've done probably a couple dozen cases—gives me a sense of empowerment and pride. I'm hopefully helping to wake nursing homes up to ensure that elderly people who can't take care of themselves are, for example, rotated in bed properly so they don't have bedsores, and are not put in a posey restraint, so they choke and die.

WCT: There seems to baggage associated with trial lawyers.

Deratany: There's been such a heavy-handed effort by—especially Republicans, frankly—but by the right wing and certain interest groups to diminish consumer rights and the rights of the individual. The contingency-fee case, that is, where the person doesn't have to pay a lawyer up front, is one of the only methods that a poor person can use to fight a corporation. And I'm very proud of what I do. It helps to improve safety in automobiles, and toys, and children's pajamas, for example. All of that work helps improve the system. But we've had such a backlash against the jury system. And I think that generally, the jury system should be fomented, should be respected, and allow the individuals to litigate their cases in front of those 12 people. That's what our founders wanted. And it really bothers me, this effort for what is called courtless tort reform. It's simply an effort by large corporations and big hospitals to take away the right of an individual to challenge the system.

WCT: At the subcircuit level, where do you want to start?

Deratany: I just want to correct one possible misperception. It's up to the Chief Judge in conjunction with the civil judge, to decide where they place judges. I think because of my experience, I would not simply be placed in traffic court. I think I would probably get complex litigation, or litigation. Of course, I don't know that until I'm elected. But, we can't underestimate the importance of trial judges, because they're at the front lines of making decisions about individual cases, which can transcend into larger cases. Roe vs Wade started at the trial level and then worked its way up. And oftentimes the appellate court uses the language, or adopts the language, of the trial court. So it is important, and we see in society—of course, I can't say how I'm going to vote on any particular issue, but I can say what personal politics I might have—and we see sometimes an erosion of our Constitution by those in power that are, for example, maybe trying to take away a woman's right to choose, or do certain things. And it is up to the judges on the front line to stand up for the rule of law. There can be quite important decisions. I'm sure Lance Ito didn't expect to become as famous as he did. WCT: The judicial system in Cook County is very politically connected. [ This interview took place before slating was decided; Deratany was not slated by the party. ] Deratany: My strategy—and maybe this is shooting myself in the foot, but I don't think so—my strategy is to go directly to the voters. I don't think that the endorsement by an alderman, or a committeeperson, is the key to winning the judicial subcircuit race. The key is simply getting out the vote. Getting your name out there and distinguishing yourself from the other candidates. Of course, I have the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. ... I'm on the Democratic political action committee to support the presidential contenders coming in to speak. We don't support any one Democratic candidate, we just have them all speak. I was at the John Kerry event, and I told Jan's political advisor that I was running for judge, and she was like, 'You've got to tell Jan!' I've known Jan for years, and had her at my house to speak, because I'm such an ardent supporter of her. And she just turned to me, and without any sort of conditions or any sort of qualms, she said, 'Well, I support you. ... I know what you've done, and I know who you are. So of course I support you.' Unfortunately, sometimes I've met with some political individuals who never even ask what the qualifications are. They ask 'What have you done for the Democratic party at the local level?' I think that our system in Chicago could be improved because we need to ensure a better way to have the most qualified candidates be judges. There are some very well qualified judges, some excellent judges. But there are also some few, who slip through the system, who are not as well qualified.

WCT: What about the bar associations?

Deratany: The bar associations do a good job, from what I understand. They will ask you the hard questions. They call opponents that you've been in front of. WCT: I know judicial candidates can't discuss certain issues and how they would vote. But what kind of platform are you running on? Deratany: I believe that the most important thing about being a judge is to ensure that the litigants that are in front of you are judged by a jury, if it's a jury system, or are judged fairly and impartially. And it may sound like a rote answer to some, but too often, like I've said, I've seen judges where you understand, and you know, they're biased, by their actions, sometimes by their words, sometimes by their flippancy toward one side, and they tend to favor the other side. I've seen the prejudice against African-Americans still going on, with some judges. And against [ gays ] —I've represented many many gay people in our court system, and I've seen that. And I've seen many judges who don't take the time to consider the case, or to hear the litigant in front of them. And I know, based upon my trial work and my vast experience in the community helping others, I will work very hard as a judge, beyond the five or six o'clock hours, come in on Saturdays, to make sure that that person gets a fair and honest and unbiased trial.

WCT: What is your connection to theater?

Deratany: Part of my passion has always been theatre and acting, and I'm a big lover of the arts. I really think that gay and lesbian arts need to be promoted more in the city. So I've worked with the Bailiwick in promoting everything from the Lesbian Theatre Initiative to the Latinologues, through the board of directors, and gay theatre. And really, I'd like to see more gay-straight theater. I love to see straight men playing gay roles, gay men playing straight roles. So there's a cross, and inclusion, of society. I think we've come a long way, and the best way for the gay community to get out our message and the recognition that we are just like everybody else is to interact with the straight community more.

WCT: So would you like to be a gay judge on TV?

Deratany: No, I don't think I'd ever want to be on TV! ( Laughs )

WCT: What else would you like to say about your campaign, or what you would do as judge?

Deratany: I think I'm uniquely qualified because I am the only candidate who has had that extensive of trial experience. I haven't focused on specific areas, I've done everything. I've represented a lot of individuals in civil-rights cases, gay-rights cases. Also, African-Americans who have been discriminated against on the job. Having that balance on the judiciary, a balance of a gay individual, a person, who is a second-generation immigrant from Syria and Sweden—and the Syrians had to escape. What a combo, I'm gay, Arab, and Swedish. That is Andersonville! ( laughs ) I will bring diversity, ethnic diversity, economic diversity—I come from a poor background, we lost our house close to Christmas when I was a child, my family was poor, and my parents only went to ninth grade. I'll bring diversity as a person who has been a trial lawyer for individuals, because there's a lot of defense lawyers in the world, I'm not putting them down, on the bench. There are a lot of people who work for either corporations or the government on the bench. That's all good, but in balance with that, it would be good to have people who have primarily worked for individuals.


Deratany also e-mailed other background:

While at Michigan State I spent two semesters on overseas study programs, and one semester in the Canadian Rockies on a special assignment studying and writing a paper on the displacement of the Stoney Indians in the mountains surrounding Banff, Canada. On several occasions I went to the Indian reservation and met with the tribesmen and the Indian chief, interviewing them about the history of the Indian movement.

I argued before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Alamo vs. United States. I was one of the lead counsel in Wills vs. De Kalb Area Retirement Center. A resident of a retirement home was tied to her wheel chair by a posey restraint because she was inconvenient to the nurses and staff. The resident choked to death. We filed a complaint alleging the home was negligent and alleging that under the Nursing Home Care Reform Act, the family should receive triple compensation. We lost at the trial level and argued to the Appellate Court that it would be wrong for a nursing home to benefit because 'it killed rather than maimed its victim.' The Appellate Court agreed with our position.

I also acted as lead counsel in Brennen v. Wisconsin Central in which the trial judge said railroads were not responsible for their crossings beyond what the minimum guidelines provided under federal rules. The Appellate Court agreed with our argument, and this was a precedent-setting case.

This article shared 1584 times since Wed Dec 17, 2003
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