Last June, longtime attorney Ed Underhill assumed the role of Cook County judge, becoming one of the few LGBTQ+ people to be in one of those positions. (He's in the LGBTQ+ group The Alliance of Illinois Judges.)
However, Underhill has to run to fill the vacancy created when the Hon. Timothy P. Murphy left the seat. (Underhill's term will conclude Dec. 2, 2024, following the November 2024 general election.) In a recent talk, Underhill discussed running for a third time (after two unsuccessful runs in 2016 and 2018), being a judge and making a painful decision.
NOTE: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: Last June, you became a judge. What's the biggest change you've had to make in your life?
Ed Underhill: Besides wearing shoes? [Laughs] The biggest change is that I've had to go from being an advocate to being a judge and someone who's here to solve problemsfor everybody. If I had a motto, it'd be "I'm here to solve problems." I'm not here to prosecute somebody or collect a fine or to take [one] side. For the most part, I'm here to help the defendant get out of the legal morass they're in.
WCT: Has being a judge been as fulfilling as you thought it'd be?
Underhill: More so.
Underhill: I meet and work with dozens of people a day. When I was a lawyer, I might work on a single case for months or years; now, it's much more of a triage. It's meeting with people and trying to help resolve their legal issues as quickly as possible. Today, I was in court and it should be 10 to 15 cases per call in the early hours: 9, 10 and 11 a.m.; but there were 25 cases per call, so the 9 o'clock call didn't end until 10:30 [which pushed everything back]. There's very little time, but you don't want to continue each case until the next time; if you can, you want to find some sort of resolution.
It's just really difficult when people are caught in the mechanics of government and have a hard time getting out of it.
WCT: For our readers, please explain why you're an established judge who's running for a vacancy.
Underhill: Yes. There are about 200 full-circuit judges in Cook County. They stand for retention; once they're elected, they don't face an opponent but they face retention [having to obtain a certain percentage of votes, 60%, to remain in office]. However, the judge may retire or leave for whatever reason, and a vacancy occurs. So the vacancy occurred when the judge retired early and the Illinois Supreme Court has to fill that vacancy.
So the court plucked me from near-obscurity, as a commercial lawyer, and plopped me into the absolute center of obscurity as a traffic-court judge [smiles], so I'm filling out the rest of his term. Now they're holding an election to fill his seat. If I win, I keep this judgeship for a six-year term and then I'm up for retention after that.
WCT: When you ran in 2018, you talked with me about the importance of political connections. Are those more important than ever at this stage?
Underhill: Yes, they're more important than everbut probably not for the reasons people think. They're necessary because there are so many moving parts to running for office, whether it's judge, water reclamation [commissioner] or state's attorney. For example, when you're a judge, you have to make sure you have good bar ratings from all the bar associations. Then you have organizationslike Injustice Watch, [pro-choice group] Personal PAC and unionsthat you want to support you.
If you're a judge who's just working hard, you may not know of these organizations. You need political contacts because they tell you what organizations you need to be with and talk to. By the way, that also includes the ward and township organizations. Then you need other social organizations that have a lot of power in the marketplace.
WCT: That's a lot of networking.
Underhill: Yesand you also need to connect with churches. That's because, for example, the church is an important part of the Black community. It's a great chance to understand a community that you may not have had much contact with. Go to the churches, meet with the bishops and pastors, talk to the people. If you want to be a county judge, you need to know the communities in that county.
There's a need to do this; you don't want a judge who doesn't understand certain communities. On the South Side, when people are stopped by the police, they understand that they're supposed to put their hands out so that the officer can see. That does not happen in the northern suburbs. You need to understand that the county is very big and very diverseand that people respond to law enforcement in different ways. I understood that, in theory and on paperbut, as a judge, I see it from a different perspective, and in a very real and practical way.
WCT: You mentioned how people react to law enforcement. Of course, part of the reason for those [different] reactions is the history of how law enforcement has treated them.
Underhill: Oh, yes. There's no question. I'm just saying that, after several months as a judge, I have a different understandingand that a judge needs to have a deep immersion in all communities. The country is not a single monolithic community.
WCT: During these months as a judge, what have you learned about yourself?
Underhill: What I've learned about myself is that I need to ask for help more than I have. In the court system, you can't do it alone; you have to be willing to say, "I don't understand how this works. I need help."
WCT: How much do you know about your primary opponent [Cook County Assistant Public Defender Lori Ann Roper]?
Underhill: I know very little. My opponent is a public defender, but I've never seen her at any of the political events I've been to.
WCT: As a judge, you can no longer provide legal counsel to [Northern Illinois University media outlet] Northern Star. How tough was that to give up?
Underhill: No, I can't; my days of providing legal counsel are over. It was painful.
It's tough to stop sometimes. Last week, I was at a bench trial. At some point, an attorney asked a question of the witness and I forgot my roleand I objected, but I withdrew it. Sometimes it's force of habit.
WCT: If a judge is accused of inappropriate conduct, do you believe that person should step down until the matter is resolved?
Underhill: If a formal accusation has been made and that person is being investigated then, yes, that person should step away from the bench. Judges are examined by the JIB, or Judicial Inquiry Board. If the JIB is investigating a judge, that person should step off the bench, at least temporarily. Also, if the state's attorney, U.S. attorney or attorney general was investigating them, it would make sense for the judge to step off temporarilyespecially if the investigation is ongoing.
WCT: Why should people vote for you?
Underhill: I think people should vote for me because I'm the most qualified person to run in my race. I have the breadth of experience to be able to handle a busy court call but still treat the people with respect and give them the time they need to explain their [situations].
The Illinois primary election will take place Tuesday, March 19. Judge Ed Underhill's campaign website is judgeunderhill.com/ .