When a judicial subcircuit vacancy occurs, lawyers line up to take their best shot at getting elected. In Cook County’s 11th subcircuit, which includes Oak Park (but not River Forest), no fewer than six village residents are out collecting signatures to get on the ballot for the February Democratic primary.
In addition to Pamela McLean Meyerson, Steven Fruth and Ann Finley Collins (profiled in Wednesday Journal on Aug. 12, 19 and 26, respectively), three more candidates have surfaced: Gina Crumble-Jones, Pamela Leeming and Tom Bilyk.
Gina Crumble-Jones, 40, has been practicing law for 15 years, since she graduated from Northwestern Law School in 1994. But her specialty was determined by two cases she worked on as a student for the Northwestern legal clinic. In the first, she represented a mentally challenged mother with three kids and pushed the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to provide support instead of removing the children. The second looked like an open-and-shut case of child abuse – a child with numerous broken bones. But it turned out he had a genetic brittle-bone condition.
“I found an interest in child protection,” she recalled. Today she is the supervisor of the Child Protection Division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. She’s also a prosecutor but hasn’t forgotten the lessons of those cases.
“I’m a kinder, gentler prosecutor,” she says. “Not everyone is a drug addict or a terrible person.”
As supervisor, she’s in court every day answering questions from assistant state’s attorneys who have tough cases. She also leads in-house training sessions for 35 assistant state’s attorneys on trial advocacy and how to meet legal education requirements.
She’s worked for the Public Guardian’s Office and for the Department of Children and Family Services.
“My focus has always been on children,” she says, and as judge, “there’s more that I can do. This work is so important.”
Her focus was on her own kids for a few years when they were young and she worked in private practice. She has two children, one with special needs and the other in first grade.
“I would have sympathy for parents, that’s for sure,” Crumble-Jones says. “I have a broad range of life experience, which would be valuable on the bench. You need to be able to understand others’ lives.”
It’s also important, she said, to have a good “judicial temperament,” which she defines as “respect and fundamental care and concern.”
If elected, she hopes to be assigned to juvenile court.
Crumble-Jones has lived in Oak Park since 2001 with her husband, Preston Jones Jr., a public defender, who is currently working on the Brown’s Chicken case and previously represented James Pender (convicted of his wife’s murder in River Forest). He, too, has judicial aspirations, but several public defenders are already running, so he told his wife to go for it.
Her first run for office, she admitted, is time consuming, but she and her husband (an ’87 Fenwick grad and her prom date that year) are used to juggling.
“We’re tossing one more ball in the air,” she said.
In whatever spare time she can find, she makes jewelry and volunteers at Hatch School, leading jewelry workshops. She also plays classical piano, but “not too often.”
Pamela Leeming, 47, is a public defender who works at the Cook County Courthouse on 26th Street. Her husband, Tim, is also a public defender who also is interested in the bench, but as in Crumble-Jones’s case, he deferred.
“One at a time,” Leeming said. “I was ready to go.”
Members of Ascension Parish since 1995 and residents of Oak Park for the last five years, she describes the Leeming family as “active members of the Oak Park community.”
A John Marshall grad, she has been an attorney since 1990, currently a special litigator in the Legal Resource Division, handling cases that involve DNA and forensic evidence. She also does pro bono work on a volunteer basis with a number of nonprofits, mostly involving domestic matters (divorce, adoption, etc.).
This is her first run for judge, though she has applied for a countywide associate judge appointment. Last year, she made the short list of 18 finalists out of a field of hundreds, she said, and was found qualified by the bar associations that rate candidates.
She has been involved in more than 100 cases in the appellate court and delivered 16 oral arguments at that level as well as the Illinois Supreme Court and the Federal Appellate Court. She also drafted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m very comfortable in the courtroom. I know the law. And I’m ready to make decisions,” she said.
She has helped friends run for judge, so she knows the ropes, though she describes herself as a political independent.
“I’m a people person,” she says. “I connect with people and know their issues.”
On the home front, she connects with people on the sidelines of soccer games, at school and while taking the kids to music lessons. She and her husband have four children (the youngest is 6, the oldest a Loyola University grad) and her mother also lives with them.
“We have a full house,” she said. “Things are hopping.”
What she would bring to the bench is “honesty and integrity. Independence is the key.”
One of her duties is reviewing appellate cases, and she has found plenty of errors committed by judges who didn’t understand the law or didn’t apply it correctly.
Candidates backed by politicians or political organizations, she said, might be compromised. She promises fairness.
Tom Bilyk, 51, has been an attorney for 26 years. A 1983 graduate of Loyola Law School, he’s been with the State’s Attorney’s Office ever since, moving up from traffic court through juvenile court to felony trials to the public corruption and financial crimes unit to supervisor of the professional standards unit. Currently, he is back where his heart is, serving as chief of the Juvenile Justice Division.
He likes juvenile court because Cook County is a model of the philosophy known as “balanced and restorative justice,” which moves beyond merely punishing crimes to “measuring success by how much harm is repaired in the community and how much competence is developed in the offending minor.”
It is a more collaborative approach, he said, “and I have put my heart in it.”
As a member of the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice board, he earmarks grant money to develop programs that keep kids out of the correctional system.
He is particularly excited by the results of victim-offender conferencing, which brings the victim and offender and community representatives together to talk.
“The justice system is set up so people don’t talk, except through lawyers,” Bilyk said. Through these conferences “offending minors take responsibility for their actions instead of having the court impose responsibility.”
As a judge, he hopes to be able to divert lower risk offenders to programs outside the correctional system and work with other judges to spread that philosophy.
“It would make a huge difference and be a much better use of tax dollars,” he said.
Right now, the penalty approach is dominant and the philosophy of prevention meets resistance. Penalties, he noted, “are certainly appropriate for serious offenders, but there’s a whole slew of lower-risk kids we should take a different approach with.” It will take time, he said, to convince other judges, “but I wouldn’t have to convince myself. I could bring what I’ve learned to the bench and lead by example.”
He added that his experience in the past prosecuting officials who breached the public trust means that as a judge, he appreciates the importance of integrity.
A four-year resident of Oak Park, he and his wife, Nancy, have three young children, all in District 97. He volunteers as a soccer and T-ball coach for his daughters’ teams.
This is his first run for office, which he describes as “a big adjustment,” but he thinks the smaller geography of subcircuits “gives people without clout an opportunity.”
The field is crowded, he agreed, but he’s seen subcircuit races with as many as nine candidates, so this race could get more crowded still.
Six and counting.