Judge Sebastian Patti is among 70 judges up for retention, and he made history over than a decade ago when he became the first openly gay man appointed to an Illinois bench. The supervising judge of the Housing Section of the First Municipal Districtwho has formed a new judges' association called the Illinois Judges For Equalityrecently talked with Windy City Times about the concept of retention, the importance of having out judges on the bench and his gay idol.
Windy City Times: You're running for retention. Could you explain what that exactly means?
Sebastian Patti: Sure. We have a unified court system in Illinois. Circuit judges can be appointed by the [Illinois] Supreme Court between election cycles to fill vacancies; that was my situation in '95. I ran county-wide in 1996, and was lucky enough to have won. When I won, I won election to a six-year term as a circuit judge, and have that expiration I have to stand for a non-partisan retention electionand the question on the ballot is 'Shall Judge X be retained in office?' If [at least] 60 percent of the voters say 'yes,' then I'm retained for another six-year term. If I don't get 60 percent, then I'm kicked out of office.
WCT: In some other states, the number is 50 percent. Do you think that Illinois' 60-percent requirement should be higher, lower or the same?
SP: I think 60 percent is a fair, rational percentage to require of judicial candidates.
WCT: How would say the political climate has changed since you were first elected?
SP: [Laughs] It is so dramatically different. When I ran in '96 as an openly gay candidate, [sexual orientation] was an issue. Tom Chiola has blazed a path before me; he ran in the subcircuit, and I ran county-wide. Sitting here in October of 2008, we now have 14 openly gay judges serving proudly in Cook County. That's a paradigm shift. Who would've thought back in '95 that one of the topics [in 2008] would be gay marriage? I did not see that one coming.
It's as much a generational thing as anything else, Andrew. The people who have taken up that battle cry [marriage] are people who are included in my generation, but there are also all the young kids out there. It's so heartening to see the torch being passed to the next generation.
WCT: I'm going to play devil's advocate: Judges are supposed to be objective. So why is it important to have LGBT judges sitting on the bench? Judges don't advocate for a particular position, and are not fighting for LGBT rights.
SP: That's right, and we can't be [be activists]; we're prevented by our canons. But it is important to have a reflection of society, as a whole. How inappropriate was it for a state like South Carolina, for example, to have no African-American judges until 19-whenever.
The thing about justice is that there is only one person within the confines of a courtroom who is able to establish that justice will be done, will be fair and will be swiftand that's the judge herself. If the judges are not reflective of society as a whole, I can understand why people call into question if justice will be fair, impartial and speedy.
I love the profession, and I've thought a lot about the psychology of judging and the attendant questions that it creates. My answer reflects a lot of years of thinking about it, and about telling people why I think it's important to have a judiciary that reflects society.
WCT: Speaking of reflecting, I know you've decided thousands of cases. Have you made any decisions that you've regretted or had second thoughts about?
SP: Yes, but the nice thing about our job is that the electorate having judges who give it their best shot, and who will [decide] the case consistent with the facts that have been established. Reasonable minds may differ about the interpretation of a statute or controlling case law, but our obligation is to get the job done the best we canand if we make a mistake, that's why there's an appellate court.
There have been a few cases over the years that, after I think about them, I thought 'Maybe I sorta wasn't 100 percent on that one, or maybe I misunderstood the importance of a particular piece of testimony.' But you know what? You can't obsess over stuff like that, or it'll drive you crazy. And in the final analysis, we just have to do the best we can do under the circumstancesand, again, that's why we have an appellate court.
That being said, my favorite part of the job is settling cases. It helps me to avoid walking into issues like the murky quagmire we've been discussing.
WCT: October is LGBT History Month. Do you have any LGBT icons or idols?
SP: Boy, that's a good question. This is just a knee-jerk reaction, but openly gay people like Ron Sable, Tom Chiola, Nancy Katz or Jon-Henri Damskia chronicleror a Howard Brown accomplished so much. They have to be openly gay; otherwise, their accomplishments don't carry the necessary currency we need. [However,] I don't know if I've ever thought of an icon that I followed.
For me, it's the notion of being openly gay, and being effective at what you're doing or what you're proposing to do. When you're successful, everyone else will sit up and take notice: 'That's the big attorney who won those civil-rights cases, and he's gay.'
Coming full-circle, of course, the importance is also in the education to our straight brothers and sisters. Now, [sexual orientation] is becoming less and less of an issue, and that's really cool.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
SP: The most valuable asset anyone has in a democracy is a vote. Never take that for granted. If you don't ask someone to consider your candidacy, they won't do itso I'm asking people to consider my record and bar evaluations, and to vote to retain me.